Patreon lets fans support online creators directly. Its CEO wants to keep service personal.
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It’s hard to make a living producing online content as a creator. Relying on YouTube’s algorithm for promotion or ads is a crapshoot at best. Influencer deals are fine for the Instagrammer with a big number of followers, but that can be fickle, too. So increasingly, creators are turning to the public radio model: membership.
Host Molly Wood spoke with musician Jack Conte, who co-founded Patreon in 2014 and is its CEO. The site lets fans support projects of their choosing with recurring donations in exchange for everything from shoutouts to free stuff or exclusive content.
Patreon recently raised $60 million to expand into things like merchandise and to extend its international reach. It’s facing competition as platforms like YouTube also add membership features. But Conte said that Patreon works because it’s not about expanding at all costs.
The following is an edited transcript of Wood’s conversation with Conte.
Jack Conte: The problem that we’re solving is: You’re a creator, and you’re reaching thousands of people, or hundreds of thousands or millions of people, and you’re not getting paid, you don’t have a monthly paycheck. What we’re not is a distribution platform. We’re not a place to find brand new fans if you don’t have an audience yet for your work. There are lots of platforms that are solving that problem — YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, DeviantArt. If that’s the stage of career that you’re in as a creator, those are the right platforms to do it.
Molly Wood: How do you view the rest of the landscape? How do you view YouTube? Is [it] a competitor [or a] frenemy?
Conte: I think, technically, they’re a competitor. When we talk about competition internally, YouTube has a memberships product. They’re starting to realize that membership, as a category, as an income stream for creators, is a real thing. It’s very lucrative, and YouTube sees that, and they want to put a foot in the door and enter that market. If the question is, “Hey, can YouTube come in and take over?” I think there are things that Patreon does very differently. Because we’re not a distribution company, because we’re a membership company specifically, our operations and strategy are set up completely differently. We have teams of people that just answer emails on behalf of [a user’s] patrons. We answer 15,000 tickets a month from creators’ members. YouTube does not want to spin up operations teams and start building email operations. That’s out of their DNA, it’s out of their strategy.
We have multiple creator-facing teams that get on the phone with creators and talk with them about their strategies and how to build their membership businesses. We think of ourselves as a software service company in addition to just being a technology company. Not everything we’re trying to do is infinitely scalable, because we don’t need to get 2 billion people on our platform. The business model for advertising and for YouTube, specifically, requires that they have billions of people using their product. We’ve got 100,000 creators. We can just do things in a much less scalable way, in a much more creator-friendly and human way than YouTube is able to do. Another example is giving creators the email addresses of their fans. To own the email address of your members, of your paying customers, is so valuable. And again, not something that YouTube or Facebook can do. Imagine if they said, “OK, yeah, creator, we’ll give you the email address of everyone who’s ever liked your page.” They would move all the engagement off their platforms and onto email, which they can’t do because their business model depends on that engagement happening on YouTube. Our business model does not. All we want is for creators to have those relationships with their fans and to be getting paid. And if the engagement happens elsewhere, or through email, or through Discord, or any of the other partners that we have, we’re thrilled about it.
Wood: Patreon has had, of course, controversy, like every big platform around the type of content that appears and the inevitable problems with user-generated content and user-based content. And I wonder how you see this problem going forward? How are you going to continue to grapple with things that pop up on the platform that are controversial or unacceptable? How involved are you personally in deciding when to ban a creator in some way, and how do you see that evolving?
We want Patreon to be safe, and we have no tolerance for hate speech. … And if you disagree, that’s OK, but just go somewhere else.Jack Conte
Conte: I get escalation reports and our executive team gets escalation reports when there’s something that folks feel is particularly risky, or “this is going to be a big deal,” or there’s going to be a press storm about this, whatever it is. And we see it. I have not vetoed ever a content decision made from our teams. We hire great people. We have great process that’s very rigorous and very thorough, and we let them run. How do we think about it moving forward? Holy smokes, I think it’s going to get even more divisive and more in the public consciousness. I think the conversation is going to get louder and more intense. What are we going to do? We’re going to keep applying the same amount of rigor and thoughtfulness and care that we apply when it comes to content policy. We want Patreon to be safe, and we have no tolerance for hate speech. That’s something I think other platforms have been behind on. They’ve been allowing their platforms to become toxic places. We don’t want that. I don’t feel apologetic about that at all. We don’t allow hate speech on Patreon. And if you disagree, that’s OK, but just go somewhere else.
Wood: Do you think it’s harder for you or easier for you [because] you’re not a distribution platform? Is it easier because you’re not responsible for promotion, you’re just responsible for saying this speech is or is not acceptable?
Conte: It’s so much easier for so many reasons. Not to say that it’s easy. Honestly, no one’s doing this well. It’s very, very hard. If you look at the scope of what YouTube has to look at and understand and interpret, it’s mind blowing. I don’t mean to be excusing. I might think they could always do better. But gosh, what a problem that is. Patreon is just a much different scale than that. We’re talking 3 million patrons who aren’t uploading things, and we’re talking about 100,000 creators who are uploading things. That’s just a lot easier. We don’t automate any takedowns, for instance. Anytime a creator is taken down off the platform, it’s a human decision where there’s been debate, and a meeting, and rigor, and people have talked about it. We’re not running algorithms that are stripping away people’s incomes. I think that would be a terrible system. We have the luxury to do that, because we’re just operating at a much different scale.
Wood: What’s hard about your job? What keeps you up at night?
Conte: I have been a creator for a decade. When I graduated college, I didn’t get a job. I started making YouTube videos. I used to spend my days making art, and I love that. And, if I’m being honest, what’s the hardest thing? I think it’s just becoming a CEO from this path of being a YouTuber. I work on myself all the time, and I’m constantly trying to learn and falling on my face all the time. I guess that’s just part of it. But, if I’m being honest, that’s the hardest thing, learning all that quickly enough to scale with the growth of the company.
Related links: more insight from Molly Wood
TechCrunch reported on Patreon’s venture capital fundraising back in July. It also did a five-part series about Patreon, which is worth reading, especially the section about competition. It talks a lot about how Facebook and YouTube are realizing they have tons of creators on their platforms, and how they’re realizing they can be the middleman between those creators and their fans, take a cut and make a lot of money.
As for how much you can make from fan donations on Patreon, a site called Creator Hype reported in 2018 that the top 10 Patreon earners are making an estimated $30,000 to $100,000 a month. Most of them are making podcasts, music or videos.
There’s an interesting BuzzFeed story from last April about how a lot of people are making a good living writing paid newsletters supported by small but passionate audiences on Patreon.
But do they get a tote bag?