Early Days—Episode 12: Cameo with Arthur Leopold

Conversation with Arthur Leopold, former President of Cameo - the world's largest celebrity marketplace.

Antler in the US

February 23, 2023
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The transcript

TYLER (HOST): Hey everybody, I'm Tyler and this is the Early Days podcast. I created this show as part of my work as an investor at Antler. I wanted to talk to the world's best founders and pick their brains on how they went from zero to one building some of the most important companies in the world.

We're live. Arthur, it's great to see you. How are you doing?

ARTHUR: I'm great. Coming in from New York. How are you, Tyler?

TYLER: I'm doing well. Just enjoying the weather here. How's everything in New York?

ARTHUR: Beautiful. Fall is here.

TYLER: Yeah. Fall in New York is a great time. I feel the city really comes alive during fall, yeah?

ARTHUR: For sure. It's certainly come more alive since COVID, and the city is humming—especially in the fall.

TYLER: I guess this is like the first fall in almost three years that things have the potential to kind of be normal, right?

ARTHUR: It feels that way. I think we're there and we have a lot of people moving from the bay and from elsewhere to New York, people moving from the ‘burbs back into the city. The energy certainly is here. It's definitely here in the tech space and the VC space, so it's palpable.

This is paid for by New York City's mayor, so hopefully we'll be able to get some more transplants in New York.

TYLER: Ha ha, yeah. The Chamber of Commerce has sponsored this episode.

I saw an article that was talking about there being lots of shakeups going on in venture capital right now. A lot of people are leaving to start their own firms and one of the trends they talked about is there's a lot of investors who are leaving Silicon Valley and moving to New York.

ARTHUR: I'm not surprised by that. I think the valley has been hit relatively hard, especially early in the pandemic with a lot of the lockdowns. San Francisco city proper certainly suffered. You had the Miami trend, and the Austin trend, and as New York started to open up again through FinTech and through crypto, New York became a very attractive place for a lot of people. 

It’s traditionally the city that receives the second largest amount of capital from venture. That’s certainly accelerating this year. But I'm the last person in the world to be bullish on SF. There's so much talent there. There's so much venture money. The Valley in general is the peak of ingenuity and I don't think that's going to change anytime soon. 

You're certainly going to see cities like New York take some less dollars away, and the talent pool here is probably unlike any talent pool in the world—that's not just across tech. Think of financing, think of advertising, think of fashion. It’s across the board.

TYLER: I think that's what's so contagious about being in New York. Everyone there is there to try to be the best at what they do. One of the things that I struggle with in the Valley is there's one social hierarchy–tech. How far up the pyramid are you in tech and in New York it's much more humbling because there's so many different niche social hierarchies. No matter what industry you're working in, you could be the most famous person in that industry and you run into someone who's in the ballet space, or a concert musician, and they have no idea who you are and they don't care. They’re on a totally different spectrum but they're the best at what they do as well. I feel like that mixing and matching is really magical. 

That's what I always appreciate about the years that I lived in New York and when I go back. You're just surrounded by so many talented people across such a wide spectrum of things.

ARTHUR: Yeah, it's certainly a hub of ambition and innovation. You see that in the people that you meet, the people that you work with. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

TYLER: Yeah. certainly no one's living in New York to save money. They’re trying to be the best at what they're doing.

ARTHUR: And look, you see that with restaurants too, right? On every block in New York you have two to six restaurants and 80% of restaurants in New York—least this was the case about ten years ago—don't make it past six months because the competition is so fierce and rents are so high. So you truly need to be the best at what you do for restaurants or for retail. Or else you get priced out very quickly.

TYLER: Yeah, it's pretty brutal.

So Arthur, we are here to talk about Cameo. So a little bit of background: you're currently the president of Cameo, but you've played many roles in the firm. You’re chief operating officer, you've been the chief business officer, you were the first employee to join the firm, so you were number four out of the three co-founders. You were also the second investor to write a check into Cameo.

I think a lot of people listening are probably very familiar with Cameo. Either they've used it or had somebody send them a birthday wish, or get well soon from a famous person. But how do you explain when you meet somebody out and about that doesn't know what Cameo is. How do you explain it?

ARTHUR: Well, I used to explain that Cameo is the place where you could get personalized video shoutouts from your favorite celebrities. But our product certainly has evolved. Cameo is the intersection of creating magical moments between celebrities and fans and brands. That can be for personalized video shoutouts, that can be live appearances, that can be now live in-person appearances. It can be talent participating in your marketing and events campaigns.

So we've taken this incredible talent base of about 50,000 talent on the platform and we've enabled them to connect not just with their fans, but with other avenues to create additional monetization for them and make what was traditionally a very challenging ecosystem more simplistic.

TYLER: Yeah, I love it. For some reason with the algorithm on Twitter and LinkedIn, I always see Russ Hanneman. I don't know what the actor's name is, but I always see Russ Hanneman in his full “Tres Comas” persona, talking about either a startup or a VC fund. Honestly I think I see a Cameo of him at least once a week. He must be crushing it on Cameo.

ARTHUR: That's amazing to hear.

Chris Diamantopoulos is his non-Russ Hanneman name—his real name. He does unbelievable Cameos. He really puts his time into it and we had him join an all-hands because we typically have talent join an all-hands every couple of weeks. I think his was one of the most memorable ones because he really talked about the work and effort that goes into every Cameo. Sometimes you'll see talent that sort of just ships it in, and it might be just like reading from the script. But Chris says he spends about three to five minutes on each

Cameo before recording it. So he'll really get into the persona that the fan or the brand might want from him and he sends it. They’re really impressive.

TYLER: It’s like Christian Bale method acting to Cameo, and you can tell. I guess that's why I see him so often—you can tell he's not phoning it in. One, it's clear that he's having fun. And two, for lack of a better term, he's giving the people what they want. It's like I want Russ Hanneman, he really gets into that character and throws it.

ARTHUR: Totally.

TYLER: I love that, that's cool, that must be awesome to have the talent come in at town halls and really build this network effect of “this is the company that we're building, but we can incorporate it into the internal culture as well”.

ARTHUR: At the end of the day, we are a celebrity marketplace. We created the world's largest celebrity marketplace—really the first celebrity marketplace. Celebrities are our business and so many of our employees work for Cameo because they've been enamored with the celebrity space. Previously, they were talent agents, or wanted to be talent agents, or they were Bravo-obsessed. Cameo offered them an avenue to work closely with incredible talent while also enabling them to reach their goals from personal and professional standpoints. We would be doing our team a disservice if we weren't bringing talent in consistently. 

Whether it's “Cameo Palooza,” which is our yearly event in Chicago where we're constantly bringing great talent in, or our all-hands, we bring magic to the world. We need to bring magic to our employees, and that’s certainly been core to us building a strong culture internally.

TYLER: I love that, I love that. I mean, you're so full of amazing information and experience having been at Cameo from the very beginning. What was it like, I mean when you came and when you wrote that first check—second investor into the three co-founders—what was Cameo like when you wrote that first check? Where was it at? Was there even a product? How did the idea come about? What were you working with when you were like, “yeah, these guys got it, I'm going to put money into this”?

ARTHUR: So, I went to Duke University with Devon Townsend and Steve Galanis. We were in the same fraternity together and when we graduated, Steve and I went into finance, as most kids from Duke do. Devon went to work at Microsoft. He then became a Vine star. Steve and I then actually went to work at LinkedIn, and we were in Nicaragua for New Years—this was in 2016, going into 2017, I believe—and Steve had started discussing this idea of Cameo.

The idea came about because he previously had a business partner named Martin Blanco, who's the third co-founder of Cameo. Martin was a USC track star from the UK trying to be an NFL agent/movie producer. So he had connections in the movie industry, and he was also trying to be a British NFL agent–you can imagine how well that was going for him. But he was representing a couple of athletes. One of them was Cassius Marsh. At the time, Cassius Marsh was on the Seahawks. He was a UCLA guy, he was a decent lineman, and he famously had his Range Rover broken into, and somebody had stolen his Magic: The Gathering cards. He’s a massive Magic: The Gathering player, and he put out this tweet saying something along the lines of, “Hey, I don't care about the car, I don't care about the Louis Vuitton backpack. I care about those cards, and I'll offer a reward for anybody that brings me back those cards.” Those cards were his livelihood, and he had collected them his entire life.

Martin went to Magic and said, “This tweet's gone viral. What do you think about a brand deal?” And Magic: The Gathering was like, “No, not interested. Not even in a $500 deal.” 

Martin was telling Steve the story and he's like, “I don't get it, we're out to eat at restaurants in Seattle and people are constantly coming up to ‘Cash.’ They're asking for a selfie. They’re asking for an autograph, but I can't get this guy a $500 brand deal.” 

And Steve said, “Well, what does he look like? Let me see a picture or video. Who is this guy?” 

So Martin showed him a video of Cassius Marsh—what we like to call the first Cameo—and it was just a selfie video of Cash driving down the street in LA, shirtless, with a Seahawks hat on. He was doing it for this guy, Brandon, who was Martin's mentor. Brandon happened to be the number two in Nike’s marketing department that went on to be CMO of the Eagles. Brandon had just had a kid named Maverick, because of Matt Carter. 

So Cash is doing this Cameo, or this video, and it's like, “Hey, Brandon. This is Cassius Marsh from the Seattle Seahawks. I heard you just had a baby boy named Maverick. I'm sure if he gets your athletic abilities one day, he'll be playing for the Seahawks. Go Hawks.” 

And that was it. That was the video. And Steve turns to Martin and he's like, “Holy shit, you don't need to be selling brand deals. We need to be selling that. That, right there, is the new autograph.”

 And this was right at the time where the selfie was becoming sort of the new autograph in 2016. Celebs were a bit more comfortable with front facing videos. At the time, Snapchat was getting bigger. Instagram stories have recently come out. So there was this transition of highly produced becoming more and more authentic. 

Steve and Martin were chatting and said, “Shit, we should make a marketplace to enable that level of connectivity so that you don't have to be the number two at Nike to get a video from Cassius Marsh. Anybody in the world who's a Seahawks fan could.”

And so Steve called up Devon—who, at the time, was traveling the world as a

Vine star with another one of our Duke buddies, Cody Ko. He’s also a super famous Vine star, incredible comedian—

TYLER: —I've followed him on YouTube forever, he's amazing–

ARTHUR: –he makes great content. He’s got a podcast studio now, he’s a really successful creator. 

But Devon and Cody were like, “Yeah, we get happy birthday requests all the time, and sometimes we'll send in videos for it.”

So that was the inception of Cameo and how it all started. The idea was really exciting to me. I was a ski racer in my youth, and I took two years off before going to Duke to work for the Obama campaign. In 2008, I was the youngest elected delegate in the country. That was sort of my claim to fame at the time, and I remembered how special some of those moments were when I got to meet then Senator Obama, or when I got to meet Bode Miller—my favorite ski racer. I would have done anything at that time to get a video from people I idolized. Barack, or President Obama, and Bode Miller were my “Justin Biebers”. Just like Cassius Marsh,—if you're his biggest fan, he's your Justin Bieber.

So I was really excited about the idea and the potential. Backing friends was something that I always believed in. I ended up writing a check and ended up calling Steve almost every day asking how my first investment into a private company was doing. Shortly thereafter, I wanted to take the

leap of faith and join as the first employee. I think we were doing about $100 a day in revenue at the time, but it was very exciting.

TYLER: I love that. I should call the Duke Admissions Office and ask for sponsorship because you guys now have the story of Duke creating this team. I interviewed Andrew Ofstad, and it was the same story. It was like they all met on Duke's campus. 

I feel like people are sleeping on Duke. You guys, you've got Airtable, you've got Plaid—

ARTHUR: —Coinbase.

TYLER: Right. I don't think people celebrate that there's really amazing startup teams coming out of Duke. I grew up in Raleigh. I’m a big NC State fan, so I grew up hating Duke—not as much as I hate Carolina, which we can probably agree on. But yeah, I always thought of Duke as just this private school where people went and learned finance. But I think if you attribute the enterprise value to startups in the last 10 years that have come out of Duke, it's huge.

ARTHUR: Duke has an amazing alumni network. What Duke does better than just about any other school is it creates this “bleed blue” mentality amongst the student body. It’s because of sports, it's because of the campus in general. And Duke's somewhat of a bubble, but you have brilliant kids who are coming in. They’re hyper-passionate about Duke sports, they're ambitious. It’s an incredible student body.

TYLER: Yeah. It's a unique campus environment. You have these beautiful old gothic stone buildings, and it's gotten a lot better. I mean, Durham has become an actually cool town. When I was growing up, the bubble that Duke created was enforced, geographically. You didn't want to leave Duke's campus. Durham was not a safe place—Duke was this little haven inside the middle of Durham. Durham struggled as a city for a long time. I can imagine that probably contributed a lot to this very close knit community of Duke students. Because, like, did you ever leave? How often did you leave? You didn't wander around Durham very often, did you?

ARTHUR: Duke was very safe when I was there. I mean, we were in Durham all the time. I know that wasn't necessarily the case maybe five, or 10 years prior—especially after the lacrosse incident. I think that really created the level of polarization amongst the student campus, the student body, and those who live in Durham. But when I was there, the Durham food scene was exploding. The Times had just written an article about it being one of the most exciting food scenes. So that was driving a lot of people off campus into the city, and it was totally safe.

TYLER: When you had the DPAC built, the Lucky Strike factory was renovated into all those cool restaurants and, you know, they redid the Durham Bulls Stadium. So yeah, Duke is a cool place, but Durham is an awesome place now. I remember growing up my grandpa would take me to Durham Bulls games. And, you know, you drive through Durham with the windows up, you go straight to the parking lot, you park as close as possible, you walk in, you watch the Durham Bulls play and then you go back and you get in your car and you leave. Durham was struggling.

But that's awesome. So, I mean, it's funny, you know, having these conversations, I hear so many different stories and one of the really cool things that's come out of making this show is that there is absolutely no blueprint to starting a company. I've talked to other startup founders and there was never this magic “aha” moment. It was just months and months of persistent effort and talking to customers. Then it sort of slowly and organically evolved into something that ended up creating magic for customers.

I think that's what everyone's looking for. It’s like people having a visceral reaction to the product that you've introduced, especially in the consumer world—B2B I think it's a little bit different—but for you guys to have such a clear moment of, this was the first cameo as soon as you saw it, you knew what you had to do.

Cameo strikes me as having a really hard chicken and the egg problem where, now that you guys are a fully established marketplace, and the network effects are working, it's obvious what you're selling to celebrities. It's like, “Hey, this is an amazing revenue stream, and a great way for you to connect with your fans, get out in the community, meet people that really like you, etc.” And for the customers, it's like, “Yeah, there's tons and tons of celebrities—anybody that you could think of is on Cameo.” That obviously wasn't true in the beginning. I'm curious how you guys saw the chicken and the egg problem. What did you say to celebrities in the beginning? Were you just hand-matching things? How did you get to a point where it started to take care of itself?

ARTHUR: Yeah, when you're creating a marketplace—a two sided marketplace—you have your supply and you have your demand, right? And oftentimes, supply might beget demand, or a demand drives supply. It depends on the marketplace. And as we were building Cameo, we started to understand very quickly that supply begets demand.

So, supply being the talent on Cameo; demand being the customers. We knew that for every talent we brought on, they would let their fans know. And they were incentivized to let their fans know because it was a great revenue stream for them. It was a way for them to connect with their fans. Their fans were essentially paying to make them more famous. Like you've gotten Cameos or you send cameos—you don't sit on those. You post them on social, and you send them in your text threads.

Everybody hit. Yeah, everybody has that like, oh my God, holy shit moment.

Like, that's the coolest thing ever. How did you do that? How did you get that?

So if somebody didn't know the talent prior to you posting it or hadn't thought of the talent in some time, you show that around, and that talent is now more famous. And we knew that for us to be successful, we had to go all in on supply side acquisition. And that was my role: to build our go to market motion and strategy around building the world's largest celebrity marketplace to enable any fan in the world to connect with their favorite people.

And this hadn't been done before. Initially, we started testing really unscalable things that eventually became scalable. But our value prop to the market was pretty clear and frankly hasn't changed since the day we started pitching Cameo. We understand this problem that fans have. And the problem that fans have is that there's been this Chinese wall around celebrities. And unless you are at a Soho House, or the Beverly Hills hotel, or backstage at a concert, you're not going to connect with the person you idolize, the person that your friend loves, or the person that you grew up watching. 

And for the celebrity, they want to have greater interaction, greater connectivity between themselves and their fans. But, oftentimes, either it's not safe enough or they're not able to do it enough on a one-to-one basis where it's scalable to the point where it makes sense. It’s one thing to respond to certain DMs. It's another thing to respond to fan mail. But there was no mechanism for celebrities to respond to their biggest fans. 

So our pitch to talent was we can enable you to connect with your fans and the earnings you can make from this could help either fund new initiatives, could help you fund new charity projects, or it could be life changing money for you, depending on the talent. And when we were thinking about even pricing for talent, we would look at your max salary NBA players and they're making $25 million a year at the time. So you consider that they're working 50 weeks a month or 50 weeks a year—call it 2,000 hours a year. If you divide that $25 million or $20 million, you're looking at about $208 per minute. And if you were able to do a cameo in 30 seconds, our pitch was like, look, if your per minute earnings on Cameo for you could be as significant or greater than you. For example, Andre Drummond, whose the max salary NBA player. So that became more clear to talent and they wanted to connect with their fans. They loved the idea of monetization, but it was fucking brutal, initially, trying to get talent excited about this.

What we really had going for us was like a clear level product market fit with fans. And that was seen in the reaction videos that we were receiving multiple times a day. So you would get a talent hearing from their idol and that fan would start just breaking down. They would cry, they would scream, they would smile, they would laugh. And there really wasn't a consumer product in the world at the time and frankly to this day that elicits that type of reaction from every single fan that receives it. So we would send these around to talent and be like, hey, this is how you can connect with your fans and you can make a meaningful income for you or for your charity.

So that certainly helped solve some of the initial conversations, but we took an approach that a lot of people didn't believe would be successful and we focused on the less famous but more willing talent because we had this thesis I mentioned, that you could get more famous and get paid for it with 85% of cameos being shared. So we wanted to maximize for the delivery of Cameos and get more Cameos into the ether. And in doing so, we needed to find people that were less famous and more willing. 

So people would come to us and say, “You should just pay Steph Curry or Bieber a million bucks. Get him in a warehouse, have him say 500 names and happy birthday and just sell those and you'll have a great business.”

But that wasn't core to the authenticity that we wanted. It wasn't core to what we were seeing changing within the celebrity space, which was that all these talent adopting Instagram stories, adopting Snap and making selfie style videos. We wanted to create greater personalization in that. So let's find the Cody Kos of the world. Let’s find these long tail influencers to create content for their fans because those fans will then share that content. Then, you have this incredible viral loop.

So we started with smaller influencers. Then we got bigger influencers. Thenwe got even bigger influencers. And I remember when we got Sonja Morgan from the Real Housewives in New York City. She was the first housewife to join Cameo and one of my friends reached out and said, “You should get one of the housewives on and I sent Sonja DM on Twitter at the time. She responded right away, and we got her set up. All of a sudden she had five more of her castmates join the platform because we had created a referral incentive program at the time. So Sonja was getting 5% out of each individual's earnings out of Cameo's cut for a full year. She was incentivized to bring people to the platform, and all of a sudden boom. We were in the Bravo lexicon, the Bravo sphere, everyone knew of Cameo. So it wasn't easy, and it is not easy today. There are a million great stories about how our team was able to scale this acquisition strategy. But, early on that's how we were thinking about telling acquisition.

TYLER: I love that. So I would love to dive in deeper on some of the better stories. I think one of the really, really valuable things for founders to hear is the level of shamelessness and creativity that goes into getting an acquisition funnel up and running.

Like, “Okay, well we've got a few customers that said they really like our product. Next step is paid marketing” and I'm like, “No, paid marketing is in three years minimum. Post-series A, you can start doing paid marketing. Your acquisition strategy right now has to be grassroots, it needs to be creative, you have to be involved in it. 

So yeah, I'd love to hear some of the funnier stories on just getting that acquisition funnel up and running. I mean, I imagine you guys were just ruthlessly DMing people and going to parties and just talking to people and kind of pitching it. I mean what was that like? Like how long did you guys spend in that period where you were all hands on deck? What are some of the funny things that you guys did?

ARTHUR: We're still in that period. We’re still doing that. I don't think— 

TYLER: Any celebrities who are listening to this and want to sign up for Cameo, reach out to Arthur.

ARTHUR: A hundred percent. Arthur@Cameo.com, hit me up, I'll get you signed up right away.

So initially when I joined I think our valuation was like three million bucks. We had a hundred grand in the bank, so we had to find really unscalable ways for us to get talent on. And initially that was like, “Shit, who can get in front of celebrities that understand social media? College kids, right?” So we hired college interns because they are the best in the world at understanding Instagram. And Steve and I came from LinkedIn where social selling was like, you know, beaten into us every day. We are true champions of social selling, and we knew that leveraging social to get in front of talent would be our best avenue.

And keep in mind, we were starting this in Chicago. People were saying start this in LA, why don't you in LA? But we found after our first trip to LA when we had 12 meetings set up, and over the course of two or three days one person showed up, they're like, people weren't going to take us seriously. So let's build “in vacuum” in Chicago, and really do everything possible to get talent on. 

So initially we hired college interns to just start DMing talent and trying to get direct to talent. We found at the time that agents weren't helpful because their incentives weren't aligned. They didn't know about Cameo, they didn't want to risk their job and bring something that's brand new to talent. And we started seeing success with that type of acquisition channel and these college interns  knew talent that we didn't know at the time and each one of them— 

TYLER: –rising YouTube stars and a hundred percent Instagram celebrities, yeah–

ARTHUR: –A hundred percent. Or you know, one of them was a big fan of emo music or of, you know, golf. Maybe we didn't have that internal subject matter expertise and knowledge. And then we started hiring people in Manila and the Philippines. And yeah, we gave them Americanized names–they were very Hollywood names. I remember, it was like Sarah Baldwin, or Jessica Clooney. We figured that if we had these aliases, there would be a higher likelihood of somebody responding and we wanted to increase our conversion rate on our outbound efforts.

So we had like this little army of individuals who some of them still work with us today. We got them through Upwork and they would just find lists of talent and do everything possible to get their emails from Instagram, from YouTube, from different sources up there. And they would send emails—like, hundreds of emails a day. Anytime there would be a response, we’d be like, “Great, let me connect you with our CEO or our COO.”

Then Steve and I would just sit there, getting on the phone with talent like 14 or 16 hours a day. I was living on his floor in Chicago for the first year and a half. I literally had a mattress on the floor in the living room. It was as scrappy as it gets. And as we started seeing more success with talent joining and getting a lot of bookings, that got us like our pre seed round, and then our seed round. But to this day, I'll never forget when this guy Ronnie Radke joined. Ronnie Radke is the lead singer of a band called Falling in Reverse. And I'd never heard of Falling in Reverse. One of our interns was familiar with that and Ronnie. There was an incredible fan base, and he’d always wanted to do it.

So, he does a swipe-up on his ‘gram, and all of a sudden Devon, the co-founder, was like, “What's going on with the website?”

We had a live flow of bookings at the time, because we were probably getting 20 to 100 bookings a day. And the flow was insane. The site traffic was exploding. We were like, what's going on? We thought we were getting hacked. And every single one of these requests was for Ronnie Radke. 

And over like a few hour period, he got 470 requests at 25 bucks and then we'd bump his price at 30 bucks. And we were so nervous at the time, we were like, “Should we turn them off? There's no way he's going to be able to fulfill.” Because talent only have seven days to fulfill. But we'd never seen anybody get more than 20 requests. And Ronnie at the time had 800,000 followers. He promoted it, and all these people came to his site. We were like, “Okay, great, we're going to tackle this niche.” And, luckily, we didn't turn them off. We believed that he could complete them. 

His first cameos were terrible. He was in a dark room with this little light behind him—you could barely see him. And they were, like, seven second Cameos. It was like, “Hey, Tyler, it's Ronnie Radke. Happy birthday.” We were like, “The customer's going to hate this. This is like the shittiest Cameo I've ever seen.” And every one of his reviews was five stars, which blew our minds. People were just so happy to hear from him.

So those are some of the early, cool early stories around fine unscalable ways you will be able to get a level of product market, or to feel a level of product market fit as long as you're putting in the reps and you're not spreading yourself too thin. But there are great tools out there that can give you a lot more leverage, and that was critical early on.

TYLER: Yeah. I think that's great. It's such a good example of pushing yourself to do things that are really scary, right? You guys fought the urge to shut him down or go in and produce it because you thought customers weren’t going to like it, and then the total opposite was true. Like people loved it. They loved that he looked like a Bond villain, sitting in a dark basement even though it was only seven seconds long. It's like five stars across the board, and he's handling all of it.

I think a lot of building a startup is just being comfortable letting those things happen and realizing that it's not the end of the world if it doesn't work. But there's a lot of things that will work that you don't think through. There's a lot of limiting beliefs where I think companies end up slowing themselves down because they’re like, “No, but that won't work.” And it's like, “Well, how do you know?” A lot of crazy things work despite common sense, or despite what you thought or whatever bias you were looking at it through. 

So, I mean, I was going to ask you this, but Ronnie seems like a good example.

You guys must have an incredible network of how celebrity fandom works in terms of bookings and reviews and price and time and engagement. Are there any really interesting insights you've pulled out? I would imagine that on the surface most famous celebrities get the most bookings, and have the most positive reviews, and this and that. But now that you're talking more about it, it seems like there's a potential for these very unknown people that have incredibly powerful niche followings to crush it—to do way better than someone like Beyonce. What are some of the interesting things that you've seen on the social map watching all of this happen?

ARTHUR: So the willingness is still critical, right, so we go back to the charm of less famous, more willing. Beyonce is arguably one of the five most famous people in the world. She might not be willing enough to do Cameo. She might come on, charge 10 grand and, you know, get a handful of bookings. But she wouldn't be affordable enough for people to drive the amount of sales and bookings that somebody who's really willing is able to do.

And we find that talent who come from certain niche audiences, where there are very passionate fan bases—certain music verticals, sci-fi, and Comic-Con realm of talents, especially storytelling TikTokers—they do exceedingly well. A lot of talent who you might expect to do quite well on the platform don't, for whatever reason. Typically it's because their fanbase isn't loyal or entrenched enough. So you'll see athletes who move teams every two to three years don't have real fanbases. You'll see Insta models that don't have real fanbases.You'll see with talent who are in a lot of movies, but not in a TV show, don't have real fanbases.

So it takes time to really build and cultivate a fanbase and the talent that really gives back to their fans certainly sees the rewards of that. We have incredible data on talent, like that impacts the way that we go to market and our talent acquisition strategy. We understand the verticals, the niches, the micro niches that will perform better on Cameo. And we have a talent acquisition team that is insanely hyper-focused on what is happening in the world and what's hot. We were onboarding the cast of Game of Thrones, the new Game of Thrones, three or four months before it came out because we knew it was going to pop. Our team is looking at when the next season of Selling Sunset is going to be on or who's going to be on Love Island four months from now. We're already getting that talent on.

So the team is very aware and astute as to what type of talent is likely to pop.

They have incredible talent intelligence. We saw that recently with the corn kid. “Corn Kid” was like the most viral song of all time on TikTok. This guy, Justin Burke, on our acquisition team is just incredible. He saw the song was going viral, and somehow found Tariq's mom's email address through some school site server type thing. He sent an email to the mom, and his mom is wonderful. She was like, “Yes, that sounds very cool, I'm very aware of Cameo.” And we got him on.

Two hundred something bookings on day one. The next day on Cameo, our business team—which is our B2B arm—was reaching out to Chipotle, to Fritole, to anybody that cares about corn. Literally the following day Chipotle was like, “Let's do something with him.” We were up all night with their legal team, my legal team, and Tariq's family working on agreements. The next morning, he was filming at a Chipotle location in Brooklyn at 9 a.m. It is now the most viral branded TikTok of all time. It has over a hundred million views

across platforms—like, 20 billion PR impressions—and blew through every single Chipotle metric that they've ever had.

But that goes to show how we are able to capture culture, and we can see very quickly from our internal metrics when a talent is going to pop. Therefore, we should get that talent in front of our consumer audience, and enable them to just engage with talent that's really exciting at the time.

TYLER: Yeah, it seems that trends, and especially the speed at which culture is moving in a digital native world, are moving so fast. These things are so ephemeral. A meme is popular, and then three weeks later you're behind the curve. It seems like you guys are able to respond so quickly to this stuff. Relevance matters in the internet world. 

I mean, I notice it. I'm 33. I strangely have an 18-year-old sister and a 16-year-old brother, so I get it. It's really cool as a VC because I get to see them and see what's coming down the lane—

ARTHUR: –What are they all into right now?

TYLER: So, Snapchat. But they don't use Snapchat like we do. They use Snapchat as text messaging and phone numbers. It’s like the phone functionality of your phone is so your parents can call you, but you don't trade phone numbers with anybody. If someone asks for your phone number, it's like, “What do you mean, I'll give you my snap handle.” And TikTok is huge, but it's interesting. All generations develop this. Each young generation that's coming through the teen years, they generate their own cultural zeitgeist. And it's sort of an immune system over whether you're a part of their generation, or not. It kind of protects them and their thoughts from external forces.

For us, it was like the music we listened to. We listened to like punk rock and emo music. When we were growing up, we weren't around adults very often. You were around your parents, you were around your friends’ parents, and you were around adults at school. But that was as much interaction with adults as you really had. So the requirement to protect your cultural zeitgeist from adults—it wasn't under assault very often.

What's interesting about this generation is that, because they live on the internet, they're constantly exposed to people inside and outside their generation. So the speed at which the secret word has to change is really rapid. They have to change it every single day, and it's done through this meme culture. Meme culture is actually interesting to me—it's the cultural zeitgeist that protects Gen Z from outside influences. And if you don't know what the latest meme is, you have to stay out.

And to the Corn Kid, it's like you guys are right at the center of that. You have to jump on these things, and be relevant to tap into this new generation. I think that's what brands are struggling with so bad. It moves 10 times faster than brands can keep up. So brands are struggling. You've had all these flops. I'm trying to think of examples off the top of my head, but there are so many instances of brands being six months too late—

ARTHUR: —It’s so cringe.

TYLER: The opposite effect of what they thought, it's like, “Oh man, that's such an old meme. What are you doing?”

ARTHUR: Totally. It’s like you had one brilliant social media intern or social media associate who had this idea, brought it up in like a bi-weekly meeting, and then it had to go through 14 levels of approval, had to get up to the GC who was backlogged, and seven months later like they get content approvals and you know every brand out there, group it, do all this stuff

TYLER: So by the time it comes out it's like it totally misses the mark. 

ARTHUR: Yeah, the brands right now because of how quickly content and culture is moving, 99.9% of brands, they're like undercover cops in a high school hallway. It's just so cringe. To your point around the meme culture, like fame is evolving drastically right now, and who you and I grew up knowing to be famous—Leo DiCaprio, Tom Brady—they're still going to be A-list, but they are not necessarily A-list to your brother and sister, right? They probably don't know who Leo DiCaprio is, or they can give a shit about Leo DiCaprio, who 

TYLER: —they can't know who he is, but he's not relevant. 

ARTHUR: He's completely irrelevant to them, right? And so fame is like a pyramid. You have your like the eye of the pyramid, that's your Bonos, and your Leos, and the true, true, true A-listers—that's a.000001% of talent. Then you have this massive base, and the base continues to grow every single day.

You look at the Bachelorette that was just on, and ten years ago, if you were on the Bachelorette, you probably still have a private Instagram account with like 2,000 followers. If you were on the Bachelorette this last season, you probably have half a million followers right now, and the same goes for anybody who is part of this like meme generation, where fame is enabling them, or the speed at which things are moving in social media is enabling them to be famous and maintain a level of fame and fan base, but they have a very hard time monetizing that, and that's where Cameo has been so impactful for a lot of this mid-tail to long-tail of talent who are really on their way up, or they're on their way down, but they want to connect with fans, they need to continue to build that relationship.


Yeah. Yeah, it's fascinating. I mean, I hadn't thought of that as much too, just like the evolving nature of fame and how it all ties together, and just how fast culture is moving. I don't feel, I mean, we were growing up, I didn't feel like culture was moving this fast. It felt like things changed slowly, and there was almost unnoticeable when things were changed, but now it's like, it's just like moving at such a rapid pace. 

I mean, not to completely waylay this conversation, but if you look at the mental health of this youngest generation, it totally makes sense to me. I don't understand how kids keep up with the speed at which things are changing, and how much effort it takes. My little brother talks about—he's a sophomore in high school. I remember high school. It took a lot of effort to be cool and fit in and find your friends and do this, and he's like, well, yeah, but you have to do that in the physical world, and you have to do it in the digital world. He's like, you can be cool at school and have a crappy Fortnite

player, and then people will make fun of you in person because of your Fortnite identity. I'm like, oh my God, now there's all this new access that you have to worry about being cool and staying on trend, and it's overwhelming.

ARTHUR: It’s brutal.

TYLER: So Arthur, we talked about this a little bit before. I think, for anyone listening, obviously, some big news out of Cameo recently is you guys just did some layoffs, and I think it's an amazing opportunity to talk to somebody who's dealt with that as the president of Cameo like you have, and an amazing learning opportunity, and I think like a humanizing opportunity too, right? 

One of the things, being in venture capital, and I work with teams all the time that have to make tough decisions, is I really hate the way that the news covers stuff like this. I think it dehumanizes the people who are getting laid off, it dehumanizes the people who are still in the company, the people who had to make the decision, and so I'd love to just hear your thoughts on what happened and how Cameo is thinking about moving forward.

Based on this conversation, there's obviously a lot of exciting things in the future, and you guys are still working and thinking full time about how to continue evolving Cameo and growing the future, but I think it's really valuable for founders to kind of hear from your perspective, like can you talk about the layoffs a little bit and why and how and how you guys move forward?

ARTHUR: Yeah, absolutely. They were brutal. It's not something that you ever want to go through and even worse, want to be a part of if you're an impacted employee. One of the things we found as we were scaling Cameo, and we were constantly looking to hire curious, competitive, like true champions, people of like great tenacity and willing to roll their sleeves up and really smart individuals, we were able to really do that when we were hiring in person, and we were able to build credible culture in person with these individuals, and as we had the pandemic hit, we went remote, and we got an amazing CRDC with awesome investors. We were in a position where we needed to really scale Cameo, and we needed to hire a ton of people for us to get to the next stage, and we hired about 300 or so people over the course of the pandemic. We didn't do a good enough job of identifying the best people for the role, and we were flush with cash, and it was like, oh, shit, the cash is here, we got to spend it, that's how we grow. 

In retrospect, no, that wasn't the right thing to do. We weren't hiring the right people. We were creating way too many layers between whether it be leadership or even managers where it just started to take a long time to get shit done, and we'd prided ourselves on the culture of run through roles and roll out the red carpet for each other, and all of a sudden, you have a company that's like 70% new that's been hired in the last year, and everybody's remote. It's like the blind leading the blind, and we were not growing nearly as quickly as we had hoped. 

Cameo on the consumer side certainly was a pandemic darling. Every celebrity in the world was stuck at home. You weren't able to be with your family, so you sent them Cameos, and our business exploded during the pandemic, so we hired afterwards, and then found ourselves in a position where we have too many layers. Our burn is not where it needs to be. Our consumer business is down, and we acquired the top celebrity merch company, and our cameo for business, our B2B line exploded, which is great. It was helping with growth significantly, but we looked at the existing team, and we looked at the current markets. Keep in mind this was in May, when it was very clear that we had entered a fundraising winter, and the fundraising winter was likely to continue, and we had to make a very tough call around do we continue with our current priorities and with the current team, or in order to do what's right by our existing employees, our former employees, our investors, do we cut burn today and create a much greater level of focus? 

That was the decision that we had to make. It wasn't an easy decision. It was brutal, and we had to really look at each role and identify those who, the functions and roles that would be most important going forward as we wanted to create more focus around key initiatives. 

So we ended up cutting around 25% of the team to 87 people. Worst day I've ever had to go through. Terrible for everyone impacted. But we were also very public about it, and we kept a recruiting team on. I believe that every single person has been placed, maybe a couple haven't, because they maybe they've been traveling, but very quickly, we were all public about it on LinkedIn with press, please hire our people. 

And I'm really glad that we did that when we did. Obviously, since then, just about every tech company has gone through it, or likely is about to go through it. And it's going to be painful for everyone, but I wish that more companies were more vocal about sharing what's happened and trying to get their employees placed because these are people that like to put in their blood, sweat and tears every single day to make Cameo great. And like we owe it to them to have an incredible exit or to find another place where they can be really successful. I think people try to put like sort of sweet layoffs under the rug like you can't do that. It's not good for internal culture. It's not right for the individuals that are impacted. So, okay, it was brutal, but we're stronger today than we were in May, and we're more focused today.

TYLER: Well, I love it. Well, I appreciate it. I mean, yeah, wow, I mean, just impressed with the honesty and the transparency. And yeah, I mean, that's exactly what the show is about. 

ARTHUR: Right.

TYLER: I mean, I created this podcast because I was frustrated. I think tech news is, I mean, like lack of a better word, dog shit, like, I think it's really bad. And that right there, I think, is 100 times better than just an explanation and the nuance and the context behind things that I think are trivialized in the headlines. So, I appreciate you sharing that. 

And yeah, I mean, to wrap us up on a positive note, I mean, where's Cameo heading? I mean, I think a lot of people use your service. It seems like you guys  are continuing to grow and kind of refocusing on the, I don't even know what to call it anymore, but it's like we've gone through this whiplash roller coaster of like the COVID world. And now it's like we're going back to the normal world, but there's still all this discovery happening of what's going back to the same as it was before COVID? What's changed forever? What

new behaviors did COVID kind of like train enough people on? I always joke that COVID is the best thing that ever happened to QR codes. For example, it's like QR codes have hit critical mass adoption at this point. Like we're all comfortable with QR codes. So I'm curious, how do you guys think about the future? 

ARTHUR: Yeah, we're extremely excited about the future. We have an amazing team.

We're investing in areas that we believe can be transformational for the fan ecosystem and the talent ecosystem. I'm personally most bullish and most excited about Cameo for business right now, far and away the fastest growing part of Cameo. 

And just as we democratize access to celebrities on the consumer side, we're now enabling brands to have this direct access to talent for incredible content. So you go to the 50,000 talent on Cameo and profiles like they have a price, you can book them for marketing content for next day turnaround. It's unprecedented. It's getting rid of all of the middle layers of complexity for brands to work directly with talent. 

And it's digitization of working with talent for commercial events, for commercial opportunities or event opportunities. And that's a huge, huge opportunity. It's so valuable to companies. So super excited about that. Our core business is improving, which is great to see. We have a huge initiative that's being announced with some partners on November 15th around animated characters, which we are so excited about. And the future is very bright. It's just a matter of us continuing to build a strong team and to not get distracted by shiny objects, really understand what our customers want and need, and ship for them and continue to build for our customers.

TYLER: I love that. So you're telling me that I'm going to be able to cameo Woody and Buzz as a friend?

ARTHUR: I have no comments on that. Woody and Buzz.

TYLER: I'll wait until November 15th to find out. 

But yeah, I mean, I think I'll close with just this thought because it so encapsulates it for me. What you just talked about is getting a company off the ground in all the conversations I've had and all the founders I work with are mostly saying “yes” to everything. It's just saying “yes” to everything—following the money. It's like I'll do any yes, yes to everything and test a lot of stuff. And at some point you find that magic moment. And then like the stage that cameo is that now, you know, like you just talked about with the layoffs and the focus and doubling down. It's funny that it transitions into okay, then we have to transition to a mindset of saying “no” to most things.

ARTHUR: Yeah. And we're the first priority to focus on.

TYLER: Yeah, totally. Like the shiny object you said to me that so perfectly encapsulates every conversation I have here, is that founders reached a point where they're like, okay, I knew what I did really well. I knew who my customers were. I knew how to create that magic moment that our customers love. And I doubled down on making that better and better and building network effects off of that. And I said no to everything else.


TYLER: That’s great. Well, Arthur, I really appreciate that. I mean, it's an hour, right? I said in the beginning, just pretend like we're sitting and having dinner and hour always flies by. It's, it's felt, feels like 10 minutes.

ARTHUR: Tyler, this was great. And yeah, thank you everybody for, for listening in. Look forward to doing this again.

TYLER: Yeah. I really appreciate it, Arthur. I wish you guys the best of luck and let me know when you come down to Austin, I'll take you to some barbecue.

ARTHUR: Love it.

TYLER: Hey, everybody, it's Tyler again. Thanks so much for listening. If you have any questions, if you're interested in building a venture backed company like the one you just heard about, we would love to help to learn more about our founder studios that we run around the world. Please find more information at antler.co.

About the author

Antler in the US

With offices in Austin, Boulder, and NYC, Antler backs founders in the US from day zero so they can find co-founders, test ideas, and rapidly launch startups.

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