Jamie Bubb: The tech marketing venture developer connecting brands and content creators
Our new content series—"It All Starts with People"—delves into the passions, motivations, and vision of the exceptional founders we have the privilege of partnering wtih around the world. In our second spotlight, we sat down with Jamie Bubb, co-founder of Twirl, a remote content studio powered by top-quality creators that helps brands scale their content engines rapidly and cost-effectively.
Antler in the UK
London was one of Antler's first European locations. Since its opening, Antler has become one of the most active early-stage investors in the UK, backing more than 30 startups a year.
November 15, 2022
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Towards the end of the pandemic—just as he was mulling over a move back to the UK after a long stint working in Thailand—Jamie Bubb was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “I found a lump in my neck. The doctors thought it was probably nothing but after a course of antibiotics it didn’t go anywhere and they took it more seriously,” the 27-year-old tech entrepreneur recalls.
A pathologist performed a biopsy to diagnose the type of lymphoma, but it was not possible to stage the cancer at that point. “So, I brought the samples back to the UK,” Bubb says matter of fact. “It was crazy—I was traveling on a plane with a preserved lymph node in my luggage.” After five years as a venture builder and then operations manager of a data-driven marketing, technology, and service company, Bubb was already itching to swap sweltering Bangkok for rainy London “to start my own thing” when the pandemic hit.
“The country was super locked down and I was waiting until it was easier to travel. I’d been putting the move off for a year and then the diagnosis came.” Bubb was adamant that he wanted to undergo treatment at home and near his family. Once he flew home, COVID restrictions meant he had to isolate before he could see a consultant. Although the survival rate for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is 80 percent, Bubb admits it was “still pretty scary to face that reality because cancer is such a loaded word.” He underwent three debilitating 14-day cycles of chemotherapy—“as soon as you start feeling better, they start putting more drugs in you”—before receiving the all-clear in September 2021.
"Getting cancer was a real f***-it moment— a let’s just do it."
As he looks back at what he downplays as the “not so great circumstances” of his return, a fit and healthy Bubb is now co-founder of a company he never envisaged creating. “Getting cancer was a real f***-it moment— a let’s just do it,” he says. What he did just do was create Twirl, a VC-backed, SaaS-enabled marketplace connecting brands with content creators and building collaborating infrastructure for the creator economy on social media.
From Birmingham to Bangkok to figure things out
How did someone who finds the tools of his trade—TikTok, Instagram, Facebook—“too distracting” end up creating a database that delivers curated, high-performing user-generated video content for brands’ social media platforms? The short answer is by chance, and through trial and error; the longer version involves a drawn-out process of self-discovery and drive that played out six thousand miles from home.
Bubb grew up in a village near Birmingham, then Banbury in Oxfordshire, and then the quaint West Midlands market town of Rugby. Bubb studied science and business at Lancaster University. Everything changed in his second year when Bubb decided to enroll in a foreign exchange program. “I just remember wanting to do something totally different,” he says. Most of his peers were going to Europe or the USA but he wanted to leave his comfort zone and “go to places where I didn’t recognize any of the brands.” After narrowing it down to Asia, he opted for Thailand “because it was cheaper than Hong Kong or Taiwan.”
Bubb was the only student from Lancaster at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. In fact, he believes he was the only Briton. Along with his new friends from Europe, North America and Australia, Bubb did as much traveling as possible. “We’d cram in all our classes on Mondays and Tuesdays so we could go on trips around Thailand and to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar,” he says, displaying the wanderlust that still drives him today.
Before his final year at Lancaster he worked at a storage-as-a-service venture run by Rocket Internet in London, where everything clicked. “I found my thing. It was awesome because I was in a super-small team doing a new venture, and they basically let me, a nineteen-year-old intern, run the UK operations,” he says. “I was like, ‘Cool! Nice! How do I do that?’ And they were like, ‘Just figure it out!’.” Which is exactly what he did.
Biding his time to create his own path
At school Bubb never dreamed of one day being an entrepreneur. “It wasn’t in my vocabulary. I wasn’t selling chocolate bars in the playground or any of those crazy stories you hear about," he says. “But I always had a deep-down feeling of wanting to do something different, to create my own path, and it only intensified as I got older.”
As he gave the grad schemes and psychometric tests taken by his peers to figure out their vocation a wide berth—“I just found it all so boring”—he found his feet at Rocket, where he was forced to learn on the job. “I got to experience different businesses and models, in different functions and with different leaders as well.” After graduating with a First, he was approached by a friend in Bangkok with an opportunity to return to Thailand to work full time.
Bubb took the plunge and joined Alpha Founders Capital as a venture development manager for two years. He then co-founded VGI Digital Lab where he stayed before getting itchy feet.
With the stresses of the pandemic—including Thailand’s stringent curfew restrictions—helping him make up his mind, it still took his shock cancer diagnosis to push him to return home. “It was definitely the craziest experience of my life so far,” Bubb says of those months oscillating between COVID and chemotherapy. “I feel like at a young age you don’t really consider mortality. You don’t internalize that you’re going to die at some point in your life. But what happened brought it straight to the front.”
Enter Antler: the beginnings of a new social network
Bubb returned to the UK too late to experience the weekly Clap for Our Carers during the pandemic, but he nevertheless emerged from his ordeal with renewed respect for the NHS. “They did an incredible job given the circumstances. Despite everything going down, I didn’t notice any delay or impact on my treatment personally.” He had been in remission for a couple of months when he left his job at VGI and decided to stop procrastinating. While the language barrier had been removed, other obstacles soon appeared.
“My big problem was that I’d been in Southeast Asia for five years, so I didn’t really have much of a network here. I wanted to start my own company, but I didn’t know anyone.” Enter Antler, whose Singapore program Bubb had already heard about. In January 2022, he started toying with the idea of applying to be part of Antler’s fifth UK residency in London.
“I feel like the optimal times to meet a co-founder are university or at work. That hadn’t happened for me—I’d had so many failed projects because people started working together on something but then life got in the way. The great thing about Antler is you show up and you’re with fifty other smart people who have dropped everything to start a company. There’s no question of being ready to commit or quit jobs—it’s done already.”
In the end, he cut it fine: he was the last person to apply less than a week before the residency started. “Antler suggested I wait and do the next cohort,” he remembers. “But I was like, ‘No, it’s now or never.’ I think they liked my persistence.” As he had been living with his parents in the Midlands during his treatment, Bubb initially stayed in a Travelodge during the week—returning home each weekend with his washing.
“It got really tiring and I craved my own place to go back to,” he says. “I lasted three weeks, by which time I was really committed to the program, so I found somewhere to rent in London.” Further stability came when Bubb’s fiancée, whom he met in Thailand, joined him in the capital to study for an MBA.
Finding the right business partner
Bubb found his perfect co-founder match immediately. He already approached his would-be co-founder, Lara Stallbaum, two days before the Antler residency started via the Slack founder community channel. “We clicked early because we believe we can solve problems for people like us by building things. We have complementary skills. Lara is a product builder; I am a salesperson and a talker—we gelled well together. She started her own e-commerce company and I had been doing a lot of e-commerce, marketing, and marketplace stuff. We reached out and got chatting.”
Also 27, Stallbaum had co-founded Swedish Fall, a German sustainable activewear brand, straight out of university. “It was turning €10 million a year but had started to stall,” Bubb says. “Running a product business is so difficult because it’s not like you’re dealing with software; it’s inventory, financing, logistics, warehousing, and all this stuff. It becomes so hard to grow—especially that the main growth engine for most Direct-to-Consumer brands, Facebook ads, has kind of fallen off a cliff over the last couple of years.”
The business that Stallbaum pitched to Bubb involved on-demand product photography, the idea they built a team around during the first phase of the residency. They reached out to 50 different businesses to validate if this was something they needed. But their research showed that most brands would only alter their product imagery no more than once a quarter—a low frequency rate that would require too many clients to make a business viable.
“But during these conversations,” Bubb says, “we picked up that brands kept referring to video content for social media that was difficult for them to make—and specifically, creator-generated content.” The seeds of Twirl were sown.
Pursuing an idea through to formation
Bubb and Stallbaum noted how the rise of TikTok had created a demand for content creators making short-form video for brands to use on their social media channels. Their research showed that almost 80 percent of consumers preferred ads with UGC—user-generated content—when deciding to buy something. From a brand’s perspective, these content creators were less expensive to work with—in part due to smaller audiences but also because most of them had other jobs. What is more, brands could post the videos on their own channels to help build their own communities—rather than using influencers or costly celebrities where the engagement was lower and the ROI hard to gauge.
“We realized that brands were struggling to make this kind of content in-house but also to get it produced elsewhere because it was such a slow and time-consuming process. There was no real platform connecting the marketplace,” Bubb explains. “Because TikTok and stuff is so new, there wasn’t a supply-side market established for these content creators. Brands would have to manually reach out to them—most wouldn’t reply, and it was impossible to vet the quality.” On top of this, brands had to sign different contracts with each creator, and the whole process proved to be “just a pain.”
"Every time we spoke to brands, they kept on telling us this was their problem—so at some point it became inevitable that we were going to have to build it."
“So, we decided to do something to solve this. We were quite reluctant because we really didn’t want to build a marketplace. It’s much easier when you’re solving one person’s problems and, in a marketplace, you’re inherently solving two people’s problems. But every brand right now is trying to figure out TikTok specifically. A lot of them find it confusing. A lot of marketers who are at these brands are not from the same generation [as the users] and they just don’t get it. Even I sometimes don’t get it—it’s crazy.”
The penny had dropped and the co-founders decided to go with the flow. “Every time we spoke to brands, they kept on telling us this was their problem—so at some point it became inevitable that we were going to have to build it. That was the origin of the idea.”
Authentic content from self-filtering creator community
When Twirl launched in spring 2022, Bubb and Stallbaum were confident they offered something no one else was doing: a fully transparent platform to create user-generated content that was underpinned by speed and efficiency. “For a monthly fee, brands can submit a brief in five minutes and within a couple of days they have a creator, then a few days after that they have a video. There’s no longer a back and forth through a chain of middlemen who are going to keep marking up the price.”
To build up a name and a pool of talent, Twirl tapped into the “niche community” of up-and-coming creators on Twitter. By using the right hashtags, Twirl established a strong database of “rockstar creators.” Today there are over 280 active members with Twirl continuing to turn down around 80 percent of applicants to maintain the high-quality talent expected by its customers.
Bubb describes Twirl’s approach to building a strong and diverse creator database as “quite education first” and “very long-tail creator focused.” In the creator ecosystem, he says, the top 10 percent take the lion’s share of profits while the remaining 90 percent are left fighting for scraps. The two-sided nature of Twirl’s business model means delivering quality content to brands within strict deadlines is only half the task—and Bubb takes huge pleasure in nurturing his team of creators and helping them build their own businesses.
“Being able to provide a good side income for these people makes me happy,” he says. “Helping creators is quite close to my passions.” On the Twirl platform, brands post projects and specify the kind of creator they need. Via personalized dashboards, creators will only see briefs from brands that match their profile. Once the creators register their interest in a project, brands will receive an alert and can see examples of their previous work to help them decide. Everything is carried out via Twirl in a simplified, streamlined process that suits all parties.
One of initial concerns Bubb held was that the resulting content may come across as fake. “But something we have noticed is that creators often only want to work with brands they really identify with, so it turns out to be super-authentic.” This “self-filtering function” within the creator community is clearly rubbing off on the brands subscribing to the database—as emphasized in the steady increase of brand referrals.
“It’s a surreal moment when you hear that Twirl’s reputation is spreading by word of mouth,” Bubb says. “For a long time as a founder you’re building stuff that’s not really useful to anyone—then eventually you find something that’s useful and it’s such an encouraging sign.”
Finding inspiration from peers and athletes
Team Twirl is currently just three people: Bubb, who works on sales and brand liaisons; Stallbaum, whose focus is almost entirely on product; and an intern who deals with customer support and operations. “She’s just graduated and always gets these new trends. Me and Lara are always asking her, ‘What is this?’ It’s great that we have her on board to run our Twitter because if we do it, we’re going to sound like old people,” says Bubb (who reckons he looks “a lot older” than his 27 years; “Being a founder will do that to you,” he laments).
While their “amazing” intern works remotely, Bubb and Stallbaum come into their East London office most days to brainstorm, touch base, and collaborate on any pressing issues. One “non-negotiable” for both co-founders is taking at least an hour every day to go to the gym. “No matter how busy we are, we will always respect each other if we want to get a work-out in—because it really makes us more productive and pleasant, and not moody or depleted.”
Another “non-negotiable” for Bubb is a regular intake of Asian food. “You’ll find me in London’s top local Chinese and Korean places more often than not,” he says. “Thank God I can find this kind of food in London.” While he remains a fan of the works of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and their modern-day champion, the American author Ryan Holiday, Bubb now does most of his reading via Blinkist, the book summary app.
“I went through a period of reading all the Stoic philosophy I could—I really love the ideas, very similar to Buddhism, of staying in the present and the concepts of what is within and not within your control. But at some point I realized it’s not enough to just read—you have to do. That’s when I stopped reading so much and started trying to focus more on execution.”
"I find the level of mental discipline and toughness of ironman athletes is just through the roof; there are definitely parallels with being a founder.”
And Bubb had taken his new-found man-of-action ideology to the extreme by signing up to do a half-ironman in the spring of 2023—even though he is not a regular cyclist and has not dived into a pool in years. “The training is pretty intense,” he accepts. “I’m pretty scared but it’ll be fine—I love a good challenge and I have a good six months to prepare.”
His new hobby, together with his battle with lymphoma, has seen Bubb draw inspiration from athletes. “I find people who achieve very big physical feats quite inspiring—especially if they had cancer or chronic illness and they come back to run, like, twenty marathons in twenty days. I find the level of mental discipline and toughness of ironman athletes is just through the roof; there are definitely parallels with being a founder.”
Bubb also loves a good comeback story. “Anyone who has been at the top of their game, has been totally crushed, and then had the inner strength to come back—that’s what I love.”
In the business realm, Bubb admits he draws more inspiration from people in the founder community than totemic Silicon Valley behemoths like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. “Obviously I find Elon Musk pretty inspiring, but it’s not really applicable because he just seems so far away from where I’m at. If I look at someone doing really well a few years down the line, I find it inspiring to think that in the same time frame we could also be there.”
Scaling up with a little help from Seneca
Maintaining a healthy working relationship with Stallbaum remains the priority for now. “Like any relationship, ours evolves over time and you need to be committed to work on it. We are still figuring things out even now, but we have a shared understanding that no matter what, we will make compromises and keep things moving forward.”
Co-founder conflict, Bubb elaborates, is what kills most companies. “People think that companies die because of competition or external things—but 99 percent of the time it’s internal stuff like falling out with your co-founder or not wanting to work together anymore.”
Bubb envisages the company adding up to 10 new faces over the next 12 months as Twirl scales—with local teams being rolled out later if they decide to enter the US market or roll out in Stallbaum’s native Germany, where they have already tested the water with a couple of projects. Other European markets also appeal, such as France or Spain, where Bubb feels Twirl could have the first-mover advantage.
“There’s not much competition—a couple of agencies, perhaps, but not platforms like Twirl with scalable technology underpinning what we do. It’s always the same problems that agencies come back with creators—their pricing and timelines are not transparent enough, they over-promise and under-deliver. For us, we're just really focused on building a scalable platform that connects the two so that we don’t have to be involved—we can just sit back and let the two sides collaborate together.”
You come face to face with mortality and realize the only real risk is wasted potential.
Twirl HQ will remain in London, with the aim to make the company as “self-served” as possible. A recent trip to San Francisco was promising from a work point of view, even if Bubb admits his culinary escapades resulted in an extra five kilograms around the waistline. “US brands are more aggressive in marketing and the creator market is massive over there,” he says. “But if we build up Twirl properly there’s probably not a strong reason why we’d need to physically be there anymore—certainly post-COVID.”
The crucial thing for Bubb after the first six months of Twirl is that he and his co-founder are on the same page. “We know the creator economy is exploding and we know that brands need to produce more short-form video; I think the key is that we understand these universal truths that underpin the thesis of what we’re doing.” Whether Twirl eventually pivots on the brand or creator side of the business is still unknown. “It’s still early days and we must be super on the pulse of the market and make sure we’re listening,” Bubb says.
But if his recent health issues have taught him anything it’s that as life is so ephemeral it’s a great shame to hold back and not strive for success. “You come face to face with mortality and realize the only real risk is wasted potential,” he says. “For us privileged people in the West, even the worst case scenario of failure isn’t that bad.”
To this end Bubb rolls up his sleeve to reveal a quote from Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life which he recently had tattooed to his arm: “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” The story of Twirl so far seems to be the living embodiment of that mantra.
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