Making a living as a full-time content creator has never been more viable than now. A growing number of Gen-Zers and Millennials are eschewing traditional career paths for a chance to live out their childhood dreams of getting paid to create content online, as more than two million creators make more than six figures online. However, the financial challenges of making an online living are still real barriers for many. Ad revenue from platforms like YouTube or Twitch isn’t enough (or even reliable) to stream games full time. Additionally, brands and content creators face unique difficulties on both sides in partnering with one another. Faisal Younus and Michael Ivkov saw how brands and content creators were disconnected and created Pillar to bridge the gap. Pillar (formerly known as Athlane) is an end-to-end monetization platform that helps streamers reliably connect to brands who want to partner with them. The San Francisco-based startup previously raised $3.3 million from Y Combinator, Tyler’ Ninja’ and Jess’ JGhosty’ Blevins, and many institutional venture capital firms and angel investors.
“The rise of the creator is a trend that’s been over a decade in the making. Monetization through brand deals is crucial but needs to be done authentically to align brands, creators, and fans. Creators are afraid their engagement will dip when they do sponsored content. By letting creators partner with the companies and products they already love, we believe authenticity begets success,” says Younus and Ivkov.
There are three key problems when it comes to content creators interacting with brands to secure sponsorship deals. First, partnerships between content creators and brands are asymmetrical. Most do not ask for rights to the sales and engagement data tracked in a partnership deal for the content creator. This lack of information leaves creators in the dark, as they aren’t able to assess how well they performed in moving units for the brand they’re advertising for and have this information on hand in negotiations in future ad partnerships.
Second, creators lack the back-end tools or infrastructure to identify, triage, and pursue the right partnerships. Established popular creators have a dedicated person or team (most likely the talent agency or public relations (PR) firm they are signed to) to sort through the massive amounts of brand deals they receive in their direct messages (DMs) per day and select the best ones. However, upcoming content creators don’t have a team to support their brand deal aspirations. They have to do the hard work themselves of combing through potential opportunities, responding promptly, and working through complex negotiations to get a contract hammered out.
Rob McCauley, marketing lead for eSports and content creators at Guayakí Yerba Mate, says, “Pillar is a powerful and dynamic resource we use to help identify serious, professional, and diverse creators to invite to our growing community.”
The third problem is less material and more symbolic. Yet, the greatest of the three is the challenge of choosing brand deals that reflects and extends a creator’s “authenticity.” Fans come for the content but stay for the creator. A creator’s authenticity is their currency or social capital. With it, the sky’s the limit. Without it, no one knows who they are. It’s not enough to land multi-million dollar brand deals if the brand doesn’t naturally fit with the creator’s personality. Ideally, a brand deal would enhance both the brand and the creator’s social capital (as well as financial capital!). Yet, there isn’t a systematic way of helping creators discover which brand partnerships best fit their personas and vice-versa.
Younus and Ivkov state, “The journey to success as a creator is hard. It’s often marred by inefficient pricing, opportunistic sponsorships that lack staying power – not to mention hasty contracts that often pose problems down the road. We noticed many questions kept on coming up: How do I work with my favorite brands? How much should I charge for my partnership rates? How do I know how much value I’ve added to brand partners to negotiate better offers? We realized this information was unnecessarily opaque; it’s a gate preventing creators from unlocking true value. That’s why we decided to build Pillar in the first place.”
These three unsolved problems limit the growth of the already massive and growing social influencer marketing market. The most promising aspect of the market is that the gaming audience, particularly, continues to grow rapidly. Newzoo reports that the number of gamers across the globe grew to 2.7 billion in 2020, reflecting a growth rate of 5.7% year-over-year. The games market data research predicts the overall games market to be worth $200.8 billion by 2023. The larger the potential gaming audience is, the more money brands will offer creators to access these audiences to sell goods and services to them. According to Newzoo, there are more gaming fans in the US than NFL football fans, reflecting gaming’s rising prominence in a country with a sports-heavy culture.
However, even with gaming’s rising prominence, athletes are still a prominent demographic to become content creators in their own right. As of July 1st, the NCAA has allowed the 460,000+ athletes to “profit off their own personas.” Many will choose to do so and thus rely on a platform like Pillar to facilitate their business relationships with sponsors and brands. Athletes are a proven group that has a lot of influence over how their fans spend their money. McKinsey & Company notes the following: “Social commerce is on the rise as well: 34 percent of people say they have shopped on Instagram based on an influencer recommendation.” There are 50 million content creators and growing in the creator economy. The combination of a growing gamer audience and consumers’ dependence on influencers to guide their purchases reflects content creators’ growing leverage as they work with brands.
“Pillar has built the foundation of arguably the greatest market disruptor the creator economy and digital entertainment space has ever seen. It’s an invaluable platform for ADVANCED®gg Gaming Supplements and has helped drive substantial growth year-over-year for both our FOCUS and ENERGY product lines. The platform makes it easy for us to connect directly to influential creators so we can get straight to the business of building strong partner relationships and launching marketing campaigns that help boost sales,” states AdvancedGG Chief Marketing Officer Eric H.
Yet, what good is leverage if it’s not properly applied? Creators lack a platform that addresses the above problems when a brand’s dependence on influencers grows even stronger. That’s where Pillar comes into play. The overall idea is simple: creators sign up on Pillar and use the platform to connect with brands looking to form partnerships. After signing up, creators peruse Pillar’s selection of brand deals to companies they want to work within to promote their product or services. Once one or more companies are identified, assuming the creator meets the brand or sponsor’s criteria and agrees to the latter’s terms, a monetizable link is automatically generated (i.e., pillar.io/creator/brand). This link can be placed in any digital real estate the creator has, whether it’s in their bios on their social media accounts or a customized website provided by Pillar. Pillar provides two monetizable links for free users, but if users upgrade to the Pro version, they can get ten links. In addition, Pillar’s customizable websites for creators serve as a central location to host these links to brand deals and sponsorships and allow the influencer to sell customizable experiences.
The most critical feature that differentiates Pillar from Linktree, Beacons, and other “link-in-bio” tools is the attribution analytics that they provide to content creators free of charge. Pillar’s proprietary software generates these analytics which is crucial to helping content creators understand how much revenue and engagement they are providing the brands and sponsors they work with during the duration of a partnership. The attribution statistics around sales and engagement is critical for content creators to know how much they can charge in future deals. Younus and Ivkov have recently added more core features to the platform: a Brand Deals search engine, the Partnership Portal, a website builder, and their enterprise product suite.
Garrett Niconienko, a successful Instagram creator and frequent collaborator of popular YouTube sensation MrBeast, gushes over Pillar, “Pillar is an amazing product, it directly takes out the middleman for young and upcoming influencers. This app helps the individual live off of their “work” or “content” which is something that many of us influencers have been wanting since we’ve gained our following. Not to be cast aside for the next opportunity, but for a chance to continue to build our brands and let our work pay for itself. I think this is a genius idea and look forward to what the future holds. It’s a total disruption of the market, and I love it. If you’re a creator, you need to get on Pillar.”
Through Pillar, creators can easily find brand deals and organize inbound interest from potential sponsors with the Brand Deals search engine and Partnership Portal features, respectively. Content creators can browse the brand deals through the search engine to find brands to promote products relevant to the former’s audience. Once a creator identifies a brand deal to pursue, they click on the deal and agree to the brand’s terms, and a unique link is generated for embedding in any digital real estate they own. This custom link also tracks attribution statistics while the brand deal is active, which is critical to have on hand when establishing long-term brand relationships with existing partners or seeking to charge more with new sponsors during negotiations. Pillar’s partnership portal allows creators and their teams to easily sift, identify, and prioritize lucrative brand deals and sponsorships that come into their inbox or through general social media engagement. Deals made through the partnership portal are also tracked with engagement and sales analytics.
Palmbee, who is in the top 0.1% of streamers on Twitch, says, “As a content creator getting started with no team and no idea what I was doing, Pillar taught me how to obtain sponsorships and easily work with brands stress-free! Their platform is organized, easy to navigate, and lands you deals with brands to take your streaming career to the next level. I have accomplished so much thanks to Pillar. With how much they listen to creators and consistently innovate, I can’t wait to see what the future holds!”
Pillar’s website builder helps elevate content creator’s ability to advertise themselves in a central digital location. The platform’s low-code tools allow influencers to build a website quickly, host their social media links, brand deals, sponsorships and sell exclusive modes of engagement with their fans. The startup has built a suite of tools for brands and sponsors. ‘Pillar for Enterprise’ is a built-in CRM that allows companies on the platform to “discover and manage multiple creator partnerships.” This all-in-one, centralized product suite serves as a command-and-control center, enabling these firms to “contact qualifying creators, view UGC, centralize analytics and sign contracts.”
The startup’s value prop is found in its positioning to be the platform to facilitate and manage all facets of a content creator’s business throughout their career. Pillar’s selection of the features its developed show the platform’s design to manage the business lifecycle of a creator as they grow their audience. The fact that all of these features are centralized through Pillar platform creates significant switching costs for both brands/sponsors and creators who may choose to de-camp to one of the startup’s competitors or build their own in-house solutions, which would be extremely expensive in terms of time, money, and technical labor. Pillar offers creators legitimacy and information when presenting themselves in front of brands, and gives brands transparency and access in terms of what they look for when considering to partner with a creator through a brand deal or sponsorship. The two-sided network effect grows exponentially as Pillar grows, lowering their cost of creator and brand/sponsor acquisition geometrically and driving up the revenues for all parties involved.
Chelo, a popular TikToker, explains, “Pillar is a revolutionary platform for content creators; a game-changer. We don’t just create content anymore, we are working on our own personal brand, and Pillar provides us with tools that help us keep growing. I started on TikTok for fun and did not expect to grow that fast, but now I know I can also grow thanks to Pillar financially.”
Pillar’s success is built on the long-lasting friendship between Younus and Ivkov. The two have known each other for several years, and their bond only deepened during their time at Harvard University. Younus was an applied math and computer science concentrator at Harvard before dropping out. He had worked in everything from software engineering at Droplette to product & strategy at Swellbox. Ivkov was also enrolled at Harvard before dropping out with Younus. He conducted research for the Council on Foreign Relations while in school. These two have a shared passion for content creators, and with Pillar, they can lay the foundation for a more lucrative future for the new generation of content creators.
Author’s Note: Garrett’s last name has been corrected.