The creator economy is now 50M people on YouTube, Instagram, Twitch … including 2M full-time pros

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Are 50 million YouTube, Instagram, and Twitch creators the new founders? And … are they far more numerous and economically important than we think?

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier we’re chatting with Yuanling Yuan (AKA YY), a senior associate at SignalFire. She recently did a massive study of the creator economy, finding that of the more than 50 million “creators” in the world on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, and TikTok, two million of them are professionals, earning a full-time living.

And that number is growing fast.

Read my story at Forbes, or scroll down for full audio, video, and a complete transcript …

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

John Koetsier: Are 50 million YouTube, Instagram, and Twitch creators the new founders? And … are they more numerous and also more economically important than we’ve ever thought before?

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. 

There are now more than 50 million “creators” in the world on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, TikTok, and others of course. 2 million of them are professionals, they’re earning a full-time living, and that number might be growing fast.

To dive into this whole world of creators, we’re chatting with Yuanling Yuan, who is a senior associate at SignalFire. She recently released a massive report on the creator economy. Welcome! 

Yuanling Yuan: Thanks, John. Thanks for having me. I’m “YY” at SignalFire, and we are a VC located in the Bay Area. 

John Koetsier: Wonderful, glad to have you! You’re located in the Bay Area, but you’re in Seattle today, at least. So, happy to have you there. I’m in Vancouver, awesome. Let’s start here. You created a massive report on the creator economy, you did a market map, all that stuff. Let’s start with what a “creator” is … What’s that look like? What’s that mean? 

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah, totally. So a creator is anyone who puts out content. So it’s people like you, John, doing this right now, this moment you are a creator.

Anyone from people who write blog posts, to posting photos on Instagram, to streaming live on Twitch, and more recently on TikTok, so … anyone who creates content. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. So a lot of people create content, but you’ve identified a couple different types, right? Pro and amateur. What separates those? 

Yuanling Yuan

Yuanling Yuan, Venture/Growth at SignalFire

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah. So the pros are the ones who are able to do this for full time, and these are people who are making six figure salaries by creating full time — there’s about 2 million of these people around the world. And the rest, the 48 million are considered amateurs.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Yuanling Yuan: And these are people, you know, with say a thousand followers here and there, and they aren’t able to do this full time yet, but, you know, it’s starting to become a much bigger part of their kind of income streams.

John Koetsier: And I just brought up your report on screen right now. So you can see the 50 million and where they’re spread.

Looks like Instagram is pretty big for this, and YouTube is pretty big as well. Looks like one is more popular with amateurs and YouTube is more popular with pros. 

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah. And we can say that it’s probably a function of how long those platforms have been around, you know. So YouTube is the first platform that came up, and it takes a while for creators to become professional because they need to accumulate their follower base. So as a function of just how long they’d been on these platforms, a lot of them were able to go pro over time. 

John Koetsier: Right, right. Let’s talk about this creator class, because of course we’ve had, I guess cultural discussions sometimes about influencers and what that looks like, and how that works. And sometimes, I don’t know, there’s a Kardashian effect and we think of people who are famous for being famous, or we think of people who say, ‘I want to be an influencer.’

In fact, you know, you mentioned in one of our email preps for this, ‘Do you have a kid? Are they on any of those platforms?’

Well, my daughter is actually a tutor and one of the kids she was tutoring said, ‘I don’t need to learn this stuff because I’m going to be an influencer.’ And so it was math, right? And she’s ‘I don’t need to learn this, I’m going to be an influencer.’

Talk about whether creators get enough respect and what kind of economic contribution and cultural contribution they make.

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah, I know that’s such a great point, because what’s fascinating is when you look at surveys run on American teens, there’s a lot more of teenagers today saying that they want to become a YouTube star than they want to become an astronaut. It’s like 30% difference.

And that job didn’t exist 10 years ago, you know? So what’s fascinating is yeah, these kids, what we called now Gen Z is growing up thinking that this is a real and viable career option. And I think it’s become more and more widely accepted because of the number of people who are able to make it big on these platforms.

So, you know, great example in the past year on TikTok is Charli, a 16-year-old, rose to fame over a year, now has almost 90 million followers. She does these “adorkable” dances people call them and her whole family’s become influencers. Her sister, 19-years-old, also has 30-something million followers and her parents frequently appear on, you know, kind of guests. So I think teens look at that and say, ‘That’s a role model, that’s someone who I can become and it doesn’t take a whole lot.’

John Koetsier: It’s very, very interesting. I mean, just culturally, if you think about the amount of content that we consume these days that isn’t professionally created — that isn’t created with the whole studio team and a writer and a script, and all those other things — I don’t know if there’s a number for that, and I know it was beyond the scope of your report, but I’d be interested in knowing what that percentage might be. 

Yuanling Yuan: Gotcha.

Well, if I were to take a wild guess — I don’t have this data in my back pocket, but if I were to take a wild guess — depends on the generation, but for Gen Z, it’s honestly probably 90%.

John Koetsier: Wow. 

Yuanling Yuan: For millennials like me, probably 70%. And then, you know, towards the older generations, the baby boomers, I imagine it would be far less because traditional media and TV is still a big part of their lives. But, you know, as we’re all familiar with the kind of, you know, unplugging cable TV is a huge trend, and I think it’s only gonna continue…

John Koetsier: YY, that’s really, really interesting because that rings true actually. I have a 17-year-old son and he’ll watch YouTube or other things on his laptop or on his phone instead of coming down and watching maybe MLB, or NHL hockey, or something like that, right. And so he’s watching that stuff that’s created by an individual creator. That’s pretty amazing.

Now you looked at three layers of the creator economy. What are those three layers? 

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah.

So the three layers are … layer one, the birth of the media platforms. So we just talked about YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, etc. and that started about 10 years ago. Layer two, is the kind of the influencer marketing landscape. So, the platforms that connect influencers with brands and agencies that also exist to service this role. And then layer three, is — and the most exciting one, is the one where we’re in very early innings of — and that is a layer where companies are built to treat creators as founders.

Treating them as SMBs and giving them the tools and infrastructure to succeed, not just with creating content, but with also building out their business.

John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. Situate this for us a little bit historically, because we’ve gone through periods of history where most people worked for themselves, right? Maybe that was a little farm or something like that, whatever it might be, a rural timeframe, maybe in the 1800’s or something like that in North America, right?

We’ve also gone through times when most people worked for somebody else, and whether that was honestly more of a serf model or whether that’s an employee model, you worked for somebody else, right? 

What does this mean historically to have this emergence of this creator economy and this person, this class of people who create stuff for all of us?

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah. So if you look back at history, and I’m a huge history buff — if you look at the past like post-Industrial Revolution, right, it’s created all these massive companies, manufacturing, agriculture … and like you said, we had this wave of 200 years where pretty much everyone was employed by an employer.

But it’s in the last 10 years, after the birth of these media platforms like YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. that has given rise to this new sentiment of, ‘I am going to be in control of my own destiny and I will work for myself. I do not want to sit in an office.’

And you’re able to do that because the barrier to entry is so low. All you need, you know, is a smartphone, which everyone has, a camera on it, your bright spirits, and just your creativity. And that’s pretty much it. 

John Koetsier: The really interesting thing for me is that there’s been an explosion of what you can be great at. You can be great at mimicking the president on TikTok and Instagram, and you can get famous and you can make a career out of that.

You can get famous at inventing a cool new dance to some odd music that nobody’s ever heard before from a different country, and you can make a career of that. There’s so many new niches.

You called them creators rather than influencers, which has been kind of the historical term that’s arisen. Why’d you choose to do that? 

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah. I wanted to call them creators because I think influencers come with this connotation that all you’re doing is trying to have a follower base and to be able to promote that, right?

I think the idea of a creator is, is someone doing this — whatever they’re creating — for the sole purpose of expressing themselves. They are their own artists in whatever shape and form, and that’s the main reason why they’re creating. It’s not to really kind of have a mass following and then lead them to all sorts of places, but to express their individuality and then people will come to you because they like your personality, whichever kind of shape or form that takes. 

John Koetsier: Getting those in the right order is really, really challenging.

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah.

John Koetsier: Everybody wants the end goal. Very few people want to start at the hard first part of that. But I also want to talk about monetization, because you mentioned 2 million people are doing this full time. They’re making a full-time living here and some are very, very successful, and some are, you know, covering the bills and moving forward. It started with ads and hence the kind of influencer model, right?

We’ve seen a patronage model kind of almost harking back to medieval times when you had a patron for an artist, right? So we’ve got Patreon and other platforms like that. We’ve also got people who have become a brand essentially, and are selling branded merchandise.

Walk us through kind of the spectrum of monetization for the creator economy.

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah. So when you look at the past 10 years of the creator economy, the first layer of that, as you said, was through advertisements. So if you are a YouTuber you get paid on your share of revenue from viewership on your videos.

And then we had the rise of influencer marketing, so brands came to these massive creators and said, ‘Wow, you have like several million followers. Let me pay you to advertise/sponsors my products,’ and then there were affiliate links. And then I would say, because that long tail of creators has grown to 50 million, such a large size, the number of brand sponsorships per each person is now spread very thin, right? So only the top creators are able to really get these brand deals, and then you leave the long tail of others out there without much business to do.

So, that’s why we now see the rise of patronage mills like Patreon, and there’s some other ones like Toffee, and Buy Me a Coffee that are a little bit easier to get started with $5 a person, that kind of thing. But also trying to sell other things to help creators monetize.

So it can be anything from selling merchandise, like you said, selling [unclear], selling webinars, podcasts, selling content like newsletters. And just trying to be able to help the creators do what they love the most, which at the end of the day, is to still create and monetize their creation. So those kind of products help provide value to both the consumer, their fans who are consuming the content, but also help generate additional income for the creators themselves. 

John Koetsier: It’s really interesting because if you look at the ones who are super successful, so you look at maybe Dude Perfect on YouTube or something like that, right. They’re a brand, they do tons of brand integrations with other brands.

They, I think they’re at —  totally guessing — I think there’s somewhere around 50 million subscribers right now, probably north of that. They travel and do actual live shows. You can buy t-shirts with a Dude Perfect logo, which is pretty cool, on it. You can get all kinds of things and of course there’s on-platform monetization, not to mention that there’s ads obviously on YouTube. But also you can buy premium subscriptions to YouTube …

Yuanling Yuan: That’s right.

John Koetsier: … to their content as well. So, kind of getting all over for how they can monetize it. It’s super interesting. What we’ve seen with the internet over the past two decades is that media kind of exploded and now we’re kind of seeing stars explode. Does that make sense? 

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah. I mean, it’s a… internet really is like a, it’s a megaphone, right? The one thing it does, it helps you kind of distribute your content to infinite number of people out there. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Yuanling Yuan: And I think that trend has been accelerated by the mobile phone, with kind of everyone a smartphone in their hands. It’s just so, so, so easy to get onto any of these platforms, download the app, and start watching and viewing. And it’s so easy to get addicted on TikTok just scrolling through 30-second bite-sized content.

And I think because of the really, really frictionless ways of how everyone can get involved in a creator economy, it really has helped these stars, these creators, get their name like across and become viral. 

John Koetsier: And it’s really niched out who is a star. I mean, that always was the case, right? I mean, you had soccer stars, or football stars, or you had maybe author stars or, you know, different things like that. So you had it in your niche. But now, I mean, some of the people that maybe my son will come up to me and say, ‘This is so awesome! And this is …’ so he’ll mention a name and I’ll go like, ‘Who is that?’ 

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah.

John Koetsier: You don’t know that person … how stupid are you? [Laughter] So it’s pretty interesting. 

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah, that’s the thing. I personally feel old too, and the teenagers that I come across in my life tell me about this and that. And I’m constantly like trying to, you know, play catch up and Google their names and like, wow! [unclear] VC job. 

John Koetsier: Google is essential to know all the stars these days. Okay, how many Twitter followers? How many YouTube subscriptions? Okay, I guess there’s somebody. Okay, good. 

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah, yeah, no. And for teenagers, you know, they trade notes, right? That’s what they talk about. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Yuanling Yuan: They’re no longer talking about TV shows that are like How I Met Your Mother, that’s not a — that’s not the topic toujours these days, right?

It’s about which TikTok star is trending. And so, you know, if you are Gen Z and you live in that environment, you’re bound to know who’s who, and who’s trending in this industry. 

John Koetsier: Exactly. Let’s turn our eyes towards the future. Obviously you’re in the VC business. You’re about basically making bets on the future and knowing what goes on, what’s going to happen, and what’s going to be big some years from now.

Where do you see this in 5 years, 10 years? Where do you see the 50 million going to, you know, of the wider universe? And where do you see the 2 million going to, of the full-time creators?

Yuanling Yuan: Yeah, so I will begin by saying that this is my opinion. I do not have a crystal ball, but I will try to make the best kind of estimate I possibly can in terms of the future.

So, I think that the next 5 to 10 years several things will happen. Number one, the number of those long tail amateur influencers/creators is going to explode. I think by our data, this should grow from 50 million to a 100 million and possibly even larger. 

John Koetsier: Wow. 

Yuanling Yuan: And then two, I think a large amount of that growth is going to be driven by Gen Z, because of several attributes of that generation. So Gen Z is known to be extremely individualistic, they really care about owning their own personalities and not really caring about fitting in. And two is, they’re more likely to have a side hustle than any other generation, just because the ease of starting something on a mobile app.

So you see Gen Z’s trading secondhand sneakers, secondhand merchandise all the time.

And three, you know, Gen Z is a generation that is just super, super plugged in. There are multiple platforms. They have friends all over the world and they’re not afraid to get into any of these circles. So a lot of that kind of 50 million creator group trending to 100 million is going to be driven by that generation. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Yuanling Yuan: And then the other thing we’re going to see is — I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s happening in Asia. I think when we look at the world and the creator economies in different countries, Asia is actually quite far ahead, more so than the U.S., and it’s probably driven by the billion plus consumers in Asia.

But when you look at Asia, the biggest trend that has been dominating the creative economy there is e-commerce. So livestreaming times e-commerce, and we don’t really have that yet in the U.S. But I suspect that the next 5 to 10 years there will be platforms that emerge that help creators monetize and get another format, which is selling merchandise, but selling them live.

And I think we’re going to see people purchasing items, not because they’re searching for it, but because they’re discovering it from their favorite influencer. So, I think e-commerce is going to shift from search to discovery and a large amount of that is going to be driven by these influencers. 

John Koetsier: I find that really interesting too, and I started learning about that about a year ago, maybe a year and a half ago. And it’s like, in China especially, the influencers who are livestreaming with a variety of products and it’s like the Home Shopping Network times a million. 

And, you know, it’s interesting because it makes — sure, there’s a commercial relationship, obviously — but it makes commerce kind of personal. And something that you’ve bought might mean something more to you because you bought it from somebody that you care about, that you follow, that you adore, that is a star to you in some way, shape or form, right?

And that’s very, very interesting. We don’t really have that over here in North America or in Europe. It’ll be very interesting if we do get there and what that will look like. YY, I want to thank you for your time. This has been super interesting. It’s a super topical thing and I am a creator as well…

Yuanling Yuan: Yes.

John Koetsier: …and many of us are. And thank you for your time. 

Yuanling Yuan: Absolutely. Thank you for having me, John. This was super fun. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier. I really appreciate you being along for the ride. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this at JohnKoetsier.com within a couple of days, maybe a week, and the story will come up at Forbes as well. The full video is always available on YouTube. Thank you for joining. Hey, maybe share with a friend.

Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

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