Patreon sells product curation site Kit to Geniuslink

Patreon, the platform for independent content creators to operate membership businesses for their core fans, announced it is selling the assets of Kit.com to localized affiliate link service Geniuslink.

Founded in 2015, Kit is a social-shopping platform where influencers curate bundles of products (“kits”) they recommend. When their fans buy products they featured in a kit, the influencer earns an affiliate fee commission. Kit has 2.3 million monthly web visitors, according to SimilarWeb.

Among the most notable content creators on Kit, YouTuber Casey Neistat curated a kit featuring his favorite camera gear and author Tim Ferriss curated kits featuring his favorite podcasting equipment and the health products recommended by interviewees in his Tools of Titans book.

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Screenshot of Kit.com’s profile site for Tim Ferriss

Patreon acquired Kit in June 2018 in what Patreon’s SVP Product Wyatt Jenkins described to me during my in-depth series on the company as “close to an acqui-hire,” adding that “although Kit is a good revenue source for a lot of creators — so it’s not a shut-down of Kit — we’re maintaining it but not iterating on it.” 

Kit had previously raised $2.5 million in venture capital from backers like Social Capital, #Angels, Precursor Ventures, Expa and Ellen Pao. While the Kit site remained active, the team behind it was reassigned to lead product development for Patreon’s merch offering

It is unsurprising that Patreon found a new home for the asset. While Kit is a tool for creators to monetize, it doesn’t enhance paid memberships for fans, and that’s Patreon’s exclusive focus right now. Even Patreon’s merch product is only for offering merch as a benefit for membership tiers, not for managing an e-commerce store with one-time transactions.

In a blog post today announcing the acquisition, Geniuslink wrote that “The first order of business for Geniuslink is to migrate Kit to the Geniuslink infrastructure and work to improve speed and reliability while our operations team dives into user support. We look forward to adding additional functionality for creators to monetize their kits in the coming months.”

Geniuslink launched in 2009, originally branded as GeoRiot. The bootstrapped company has 13 employees headquartered in Seattle.

Social commerce is a popular trend right now, with other social platforms testing e-commerce integrations for users (particularly influencers) to feature products. YouTube now has a built-in merch section for a creator to sell products under their videos, and Instagram lets influencers sell products directly in the app. These have the advantage of providing influencer-curated shopping experiences right where influencers and their fans already are.

Those features assume an influencer is selling their own products, however, or at least the products of a brand they’ve formally partnered with. For Kit and its affiliate link model, the focus is on influencers as trusted curators for their fans. The influencer can feature a much wider variety of products and do so immediately, without negotiating a deal with each brand. 

That’s also why the model likely doesn’t make sense for many popular influencers — they want more money for their endorsement of a product than a standard affiliate link fee, and recommending lots of products they don’t have formal deals to promote may undercut them in their negotiations with brands.

As Geniuslink adds more monetization features to Kit, perhaps it will make it a more lucrative business activity for small and large influencers alike. 

How Kobalt is simplifying the killer complexities of the music industry

Backed by over $200 million in VC funding, Kobalt is changing the way the music industry does business and putting more money into musicians’ pockets in the process.

In Part I of this series, I walked through the company’s founding story and its overall structure. There are two core theses that Kobalt bet on: 1) that the shift to digital music could transform the way royalties are tracked and paid, and 2) that music streaming will empower a growing middle class of DIY musicians who find success across countless niches.

This article focuses on the complex way royalties flow through the industry and how Kobalt is restructuring that process (while Part III will focus on music’s middle class). The music industry runs on copyright administration and royalty collections. If the system breaks — if people lose track of where songs are being played and who is owed how much in royalties — everything halts.

Kobalt is as much a compliance tech company as it is a music company: it has built a quasi “operating system” to more accurately and quickly handle this using software and a centralized approach to collections, upending a broken, inefficient system so everything can run more smoothly and predictably on top of it. The big question is whether it can maintain its initial lead in doing this, however.

The business of a song

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Image via Getty Images / Mykyta Dolmatov

How a Swedish saxophonist built Kobalt, the world’s next music unicorn

You may not have heard of Kobalt before, but you probably engage with the music it oversees every day, if not almost every hour. Combining a technology platform to better track ownership rights and royalties of songs with a new approach to representing musicians in their careers, Kobalt has risen from the ashes of the 2000 dot-com bubble to become a major player in the streaming music era. It is the leading alternative to incumbent music publishers (who represent songwriters) and is building a new model record label for the growing “middle class’ of musicians around the world who are stars within niche audiences.

Having predicted music’s digital upheaval early, Kobalt has taken off as streaming music has gone mainstream across the US, Europe, and East Asia. In the final quarter of last year, it represented the artists behind 38 of the top 100 songs on U.S. radio.

Along the way, it has secured more than $200 million in venture funding from investors like GV, Balderton, and Michael Dell, and its valuation was last pegged at $800 million. It confirmed in April that it is raising another $100 million to boot. Kobalt Music Group now employs over 700 people in 14 offices, and GV partner Avid Larizadeh Duggan even left her firm to become Kobalt’s COO.

How did a Swedish saxophonist from the 1980s transform into a leading entrepreneur in music’s digital transformation? Why are top technology VCs pouring money into a company that represents a roster of musicians? And how has the rise of music streaming created an opening for Kobalt to architect a new approach to the way the industry works?

Gaining an understanding of Kobalt and its future prospects is a vehicle for understanding the massive change underway across the global music industry right now and the opportunities that is and isn’t creating for entrepreneurs.

This article is Part 1 of the Kobalt EC-1, focused on the company’s origin story and growth. Part 2 will look at the company’s journey to create a new model for representing songwriters and tracking their ownership interests through the complex world of music royalties. Part 3 will look at Kobalt’s thesis about the rise of a massive new middle class of popular musicians and the record label alternative it is scaling to serve them.

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Early lessons on the tough road of entrepreneurship

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Image via Kobalt Music

It’s tough to imagine a worse year to launch a music company than 2000. Willard Ahdritz, a Swede living in London, left his corporate consulting job and sold his home for £200,000 to fully commit to his idea of a startup collecting royalties for musicians. In hindsight, his timing was less than impeccable: he launched Kobalt just as Napster and music piracy exploded onto the mainstream and mere months before the dot-com crash would wipe out much of the technology industry.

The situation was dire, and even his main seed investor told him he was doomed once the market crashed. “Eating an egg and ham sandwich…have you heard this saying? The chicken is contributing but the pig is committed,” Ahdritz said when we first spoke this past April (he has an endless supply of sayings). “I believe in that — to lose is not an option.”

Entrepreneurial hardship though is something that Ahdritz had early experience with. Born in Örebro, a city of 100,000 people in the middle of Sweden, Ahdritz spent a lot of time as a kid playing in the woods, which also holding dual interests in music and engineering. The intersection of those two converged in the synthesizer revolution of early electronic music, and he was fascinated by bands like Kraftwerk.

Wall St analyst Laura Martin on the fate of Netflix, breaking up Google, EU regulation, and a decade of more money for Hollywood

The rise of streaming video platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime has upended traditional power balances in Hollywood and is reorganizing the way we consume films and TV series as consumers.

Following her talk at the recent Banff World Media Festival in Canada, I interviewed Laura Martin, the senior analyst covering entertainment and internet stocks at leading investment bank Needham & Company, to sort out how the pieces are moving in this chess game between content creators, streaming services, consumers, and government regulators.

We discuss why Netflix is still at risk of a downfall, the effect of EU content quotas, why Martin thinks regulators should break up Google, and why video streaming and game streaming are likely to merge into the same subscription products.

Here is the transcript of our discussion, edited for length and clarity:


Eric Peckham: There’s an optimistic case that the rise of online video streaming is a win for both consumers and content creators because it creates a vast landscape of content platforms. Onstage in Banff, you argued that the number of content platforms (and thus the number of content buyers) will in fact shrink. Why do you see it going that direction?

Laura Martin: There are 4,000 video apps on the Roku platform today (and similarly on Samsung and on Amazon Fire). What you’ll see is a consolidation in the industry as we get big players like the Walt Disney Company, AT&T, and Apple coming into the DTC business with big, deep pockets. Although we have more buyers of content today, it’s driving prices up.

It is likely that the big players are just battling out between themselves, putting smaller players out of business. Over a 10-year time frame, I expect just three or four winners, and that will bring more discipline back into the financial aspects of the business.

Peckham: What will separate the winners from the losers here?

A guide to Virtual Beings and how they impact our world

Money from big tech companies and top VC firms is flowing into the nascent “virtual beings” space. Mixing the opportunities presented by conversational AI, generative adversarial networks, photorealistic graphics, and creative development of fictional characters, “virtual beings” envisions a near-future where characters (with personalities) that look and/or sound exactly like humans are part of our day-to-day interactions.

Last week in San Francisco, entrepreneurs, researchers, and investors convened for the first Virtual Beings Summit, where organizer and Fable Studio CEO Edward Saatchi announced a grant program. Corporates like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft are pouring resources into conversational AI technology, chip-maker Nvidia and game engines Unreal and Unity are advancing real-time ray tracing for photorealistic graphics, and in my survey of media VCs one of the most common interests was “virtual influencers”.

The term “virtual beings” gets used as a catch-all categorization of activities that overlap here. There are really three separate fields getting conflated though:

  1. Virtual Companions
  2. Humanoid Character Creation
  3. Virtual Influencers

These can overlap — there are humanoid virtual influencers for example — but they represent separate challenges, separate business opportunities, and separate societal concerns. Here’s a look at these fields, including examples from the Virtual Beings Summit, and how they collectively comprise this concept of virtual beings:

Virtual companions

Virtual companions are conversational AI that build a unique 1-to-1 relationship with us, whether to provide friendship or utility. A virtual companion has personality, gauges the personality of the user, retains memory of prior conversations, and uses all that to converse with humans like a fellow human would. They seem to exist as their own being even if we rationally understand they are not.

Virtual companions can exist across 4 formats:

  1. Physical presence (Robotics)
  2. Interactive visual media (social media, gaming, AR/VR)
  3. Text-based messaging
  4. Interactive voice

While pop culture depictions of this include Her and Ex Machina, nascent real-world examples are virtual friend bots like Hugging Face and Replika as well as voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. The products currently on the market aren’t yet sophisticated conversationalists or adept at engaging with us as emotional creatures but they may not be far off from that.

Patreon raises $60M Series D, targets international growth and more customization

Patreon, the San Francisco-based platform that helps over 100,000 online content creators manage paid membership communities for their most dedicated fans, has raised $60 million in Series D funding.

Glade Brook Capital, a late-stage fund based in Greenwich, Connecticut, led this round with participation from prior investors like Index Ventures, CRV, Thrive Capital, Initialized, and DFJ Growth. This totals $165 million in funding that Patreon has raised since its founding in 2013.

In February, I published a 5-part series analyzing Patreon’s founding story, product evolution, business, competition, and overarching vision. The company has prioritized established creators who can generate $1,000+ per month in membership revenue as its core customer and is focused on being the underlying platform they use to manage relationships with superfans through a CRM, payment processing, and gating of exclusive access to content and discussion groups.

It makes money by taking a cut of each creator’s monthly revenue earned from their fans’ Patreon memberships.

Co-Founder & CEO Jack Conte shared news of the Series D via a blog post and tells me the new funds will contribute toward these priorities:

  1. Benefits functionality: integrating with more tech platforms using the Patreon API to ensure only paying members receive access to creators’ exclusive discussion groups on Discord or Discourse, receive special badges that mark them as a patron on Reddit, etc.
  2. Premium features: adding more features to the new Pro and Premium pricing tiers it launched in March which provide extra services and functionality to creators in exchange for a higher cut of their membership revenue (8% and 12%–plus payment processing fees–respectively, compared to 5% for the original Lite tier).
  3. Page customization: enabling creators to customize their Patreon pages more by changing colors, layout, and font to fit their own brand.
  4. Merchandising: expanding Patreon’s fulfillment of merchandise for creators who offer merch as a reward to their fans who subscribe to a given membership tier by adding international shipping options and more merch products to select for custom branding.
  5. International expansion: ensuring Patreon is available in more languages and can easily handle international payments, plus staffing new offices in Dublin (Ireland), Porto (Portugal), and other locations yet to be finalized.

When I asked Conte whether he plans to use this new funding to make more acquisitions — Patreon acquired the white-label membership management platform Memberful last summer — he responded that there are no deals currently in the pipeline but M&A is certainly on the table if they identify the right opportunity:

“It’s been a few years that we have been seeing the ‘Patreon for X’ trend of startups focused on a specific niche like podcasting. We’re looking at those companies and always open to joining forces if the mission is aligned and product is great.”

As it announced in January, Patreon expects to surpass $500 million in payments processed during 2019, passing the milestone of over $1 billion paid out to creators since founding. Roughly 40% of those payments are international and the overall monthly spend of fans who use Patreon is $12 on average.

 

Glade Brook Capital’s managing partner Paul Hudson, who originally founded the firm as a hedge fund, shared a statement with TechCrunch on why he invested in Patreon:

“Too many talented creators struggle to monetize their efforts in the digital era. Patreon is growing so fast because creators recognize the value in building recurring fan-based revenue streams and improving engagement with their most passionate fans.”

Conte also revealed that a handful of artists, including musician Serj Tankian and comedian Hannibal Buress, invested in Patreon as part of this new round. He hopes that the Pro and Premium tiers will draw more creators who don’t already use Patreon and support existing customers who need more advanced toolset given the size of their fanbase.

The need-to-know takeaways from VidCon 2019

VidCon, the annual summit in Anaheim, CA for social media stars and their fans to meet each other drew over 75,000 attendees over last week and this past weekend. A small subset of those where entertainment and tech executives convening to share best practices and strike deals.

Of the wide range of topics discussed in the industry-only sessions and casual conversation, five trends stuck out to me as takeaways for Extra Crunch members: the prominence of TikTok, the strong presence of Chinese tech companies in general, the contemplation of deep fakes, curiosity around virtual influencers, and the widespread interest in developing consumer product startups around top content creators.

Newer platforms take center stage

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Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

TikTok, the Chinese social video app (owned by Bytedance) that exploded onto the US market this past year, was the biggest conversation topic. Executives and talent managers were curious to see where it will go over the next year more than they were convinced that it is changing the industry in any fundamental way.

TikTok influencers were a major presence on the stages and taking selfies with fans on the conference floor. I overheard tweens saying “there are so many TikTokers here” throughout the conference. Meanwhile, TikTok’s US GM Vanessa Pappas held a session where she argued the app’s focus on building community among people who don’t already know each other (rather than being centered on your existing friendships) is a fundamental differentiator.

Kathleen Grace, CEO of production company New Form, noted that Tik Tok’s emphasis on visuals and music instead of spoken or written word makes it distinctly democratic in convening users across countries on equal footing.

Esports was also a big presence across the conference floor with teens lined up to compete at numerous simultaneous competitions. Twitch’s Mike Aragon and Jana Werner outlined Twitch’s expansion in content verticals adjacent to gaming like anime, sports, news, and “creative content’ as the first chapter in expanding the format of interactive live-streams across all verticals. They also emphasized the diversity of revenue streams Twitch enables creators to leverage: ads, tipping, monthly patronage, Twitch Prime, and Bounty Board (which connects brands and live streamers).

Fundraising 101: How to trigger FOMO among VCs

Let’s go beyond the high-level fundraising advice that fills VC blogs. If you have a compelling business and have educated yourself on crafting a pitch deck and getting warm intros to VCs, there are still specific questions about the strategy to follow for your fundraise.

How can you make your round “hot” and trigger a fear of missing out (FOMO) among investors? How can you fundraise faster to reduce the distraction it has on running your business?

“You’re trying to make a market for your equity. In order to make a market you need multiple people lining up at the same time.”
Unsurprisingly, I’ve noticed that experienced founders tend to be more systematic in the tactics they employ to raise capital. So I asked several who have raised tens (or hundreds) of millions in VC funding to share specific strategies for raising money on their terms. Here’s their advice.

(The three high-profile CEOs who agreed to share their specific playbooks requested anonymity so VCs don’t know which is theirs. I’ve nicknamed them Founder A, Founder B, and Founder C.)

Have additional fundraising tactics to share? Email me at [email protected].

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You need to create a market for your shares

“You’re trying to make a market for your equity. In order to make a market, you need multiple people lining up at the same time.”

That advice from Atrium CEO Justin Kan (a co-founder of companies like Twitch and former partner at Y Combinator) was reiterated by all the entrepreneurs I interviewed. Fundraising should be a sprint, not a marathon, otherwise the loss of momentum will make it more difficult.

Delane Parnell’s plan to conquer amateur esports

Most of the buzz about esports focuses on high-profile professional teams and audiences watching live streams of those professionals.

What gets ignored is the entire base of amateurs wanting to compete in esports below the professional tier. This is like talking about the NBA and the value of its sponsorships and broadcast rights as if that is the entirety of the basketball market in the US.

Los Angeles-based PlayVS (pronounced “play versus”) wants to become the dominant platform for amateur esports, starting at the high school level. The company raised $46 million last year—its first year operating—with the vision that owning the infrastructure for competitions and expanding it to encompass other social elements of gaming can make it the largest gaming company in the world.

I recently sat down with Founder & CEO Delane Parnell to talk about his company’s formation and growth strategy. Below is the transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Founding PlayVS

Eric P: You have a fascinating background as a serial entrepreneur while you were a teenager.

Delane P.: I grew up on the west side of Detroit and started working at the cell phone store of a family friend when I was 13. When I turned 16 or so, I joined two guys in opening our own Metro PCS franchise. And then two additional franchises. And I was on the founding team of a car rental company called Executive Rental Car.

Eric P: And this segued into tech startups after meeting Jon Triest from Ludlow Ventures?

Delane P: He got me a ticket to the Launch conference in SF, and that experience inspired me to start a Fireside Chat series in Detroit that brought in people like Brian Wong from Kiip and Alexis Ohanian from Reddit to speak. Starting at 21, I worked at a venture capital firm called IncWell based in Birmingham, Michigan then joined a startup called Rocket Fiber.

We were focused on internet infrastructure – this is 2015-ish – and I was appointed to lead our strategy in esports. So I met with many of the publishers, ancillary startups, tournament organizers, and OG players and team owners. Through the process, I became passionate about esports and ended up leaving Rocket Fiber to start a Call of Duty team that I quickly sold to TSM.

Eric P: What then drove you to found PlayVS? Did it seem like an obvious opportunity or did it take you a while to figure it out?

Delane P.: What esports means is playing video games competitively bound to governance and a competitive ruleset. As a player, what that experience means is you play on a team, in a position, with a coach, in a season that culminates in some sort of championship.

Where top VCs are investing in media, entertainment & gaming

Most of the strategy discussions and news coverage in the media and entertainment industry is concerned with the unfolding corporate mega-mergers and the political implications of social media platforms.

These are important conversations, but they’re largely a story of twentieth-century media (and broader society) finally responding to the dominance Web 2.0 companies have achieved.

To entrepreneurs and VCs, the more pressing focus is on what the next generation of companies to transform entertainment will look like. Like other sectors, the underlying force is advances in artificial intelligence and computing power.

In this context, that results in a merging of gaming and linear storytelling into new interactive media. To highlight the opportunities here, I asked nine top VCs to share where they are putting their money.

Here are the media investment theses of: Cyan Banister (Founders Fund), Alex Taussig (Lightspeed), Matt Hartman (betaworks), Stephanie Zhan (Sequoia), Jordan Fudge (Sinai), Christian Dorffer (Sweet Capital), Charles Hudson (Precursor), MG Siegler (GV), and Eric Hippeau (Lerer Hippeau).

Cyan Banister, Partner at Founders Fund

In 2018 I was obsessed with the idea of how you can bring AI and entertainment together. Having made early investments in Brud, A.I. Foundation, Artie and Fable, it became clear that the missing piece behind most AR experiences was a lack of memory.