This story was originally published in The creators — a newsletter on the people who fuel the economy of creators. You understand sent to your inbox.
Dmitry Shapiro and Sean Thielen founded Koji, a service offering free apps to creators, when Thielen lived in Shapiro’s garage in 2016. Koji allows software developers to publish apps, or “templates” as Koji calls them, while bypassing app stores. ‘Apple and Google. Apps, many of which provide tools for creators to earn money, are instead accessed through links and have taken off in the creator economy.
The two founders form an unlikely couple. Shapiro, 53, has founded several companies and held executive positions at Google and MySpace Music. Thielen, 28, is a self-taught coder with a degree in English. They met online while Thielen was studying at Chapman University in California.
Koji is best known for his List of links application. Creators on platforms like Instagram and TikTok can only display one link in their profile at a time. But they often want to list more: links to their merchant site, their podcast, an article about them and their Patreon profile, for example. List of Links and its rival, Linktree, display a link that takes users to a third-party page with as many links as a creator wants, allowing creators to connect these revenue-generating sites to their social networks.
Rachyl Jones of The Observer recently spoke with Shapiro and Thielen. This interview has been slightly edited
How has your product evolved over the years?
Shapiro: When Sean and I started the company four years ago, we weren’t building anything that had to do with the creator economy. The platform was designed for software developers to quickly build web apps that don’t need to go through the App Store. They would simply have a link. And developers could use these apps on any form of technology. Developers have started creating these creator saving tools.
We can make it easy for you to display TikToks on Instagram or Tweets in TikToks. Many creators want the ability to collect email addresses or other types of information from their users, and we provide that. Think of it as different kinds of interactive mini-experiences that could be for business purposes, to build deeper relationships, or crowdsource content, or allow fans to express themselves to each other.
Are these apps developed by employees or can anyone develop an app and offer it through Koji?
Shapiro: Any independent developer in the world can come in and add stuff to the template store.
How are developers paid?
Shapiro: The templates are free to use. If it allows you to earn money, that is, it has in-app purchases, we take a fee for each transaction made, and the developer who created this model receives a part of it. Developers are the creative juice that fuels innovation here.
What percentage do you take?
Shapiro: The developer who publishes the template can set the fee. We have models at 5%, others at 10% and others at 15%. I don’t know of any that exceed 15%.
Thielen: These transactions bypass the Apple App Store and Google Play Store fees. Apple takes a 30% cut. We are not subject to this, nor are the creators who use Koji.
(Apple takes a 30 percent cut developers who earn more than $1 million through App Store per year and 15% for developers who earn less).
Most people see you as a “Link in Bio” platform, but you have hundreds of other apps. Do you think leaning so heavily on “Link in Bio” marketing at first bothered you?
Shapiro: I think it bothered us. It was a function of time. I think when we needed it – while building our library of templates that took years – positioning (Koji) as a “link in bio” was usually the right approach. I now think that wouldn’t be the best way to go forward, and that’s why we’ve clarified the product on our homepage.
How do you make sure multiple apps aren’t trying to do the same thing?
Shapiro: We haven’t had that problem yet.
Thielen: What’s missing in the creator economy is a real competitive dynamic for creators to say, “Oh, I want to try Cameo. Actually, let me try Shoutout and see if it makes me more money.” money. It’s really hard to do that today. In an ideal world, there are 10 different Cameo-style things that are designed and optimized differently. Some may be optimized for different geographies or languages or types of creators. And people can come and pick the ones that suit them best, and if there’s nothing they want, they can inspire the third-party developer community to fill that gap in the market. App Store for us is this competitive, all-important soup that it creates – which we believe is actually the key to unlocking the next wave of innovation in the creator economy.
Where is the economy of creators going?
Shapiro: I think we’re celebrating what’s called the creator economy. It is – while amazing and fascinating – actually a small part of what is happening in the world at large. These people we call creators are simply early adopters of a new way of “being” for digital natives. Now we’re focusing on a whole different subset of these creators. We call them “sellers”. They don’t think like creators. They are not trying to grow an audience or get ad share from YouTube. They say, “I want to sell a physical product, a digital product, an experience, or access.” The number one rule of marketing is to go where the customer is, and so they share things on social media. A seller can publish 20 videos per day. A person’s chances of monetary success are much higher as a seller than as a creator.
With all these crazy layoffs, more and more people will be pushed to become solopreneurs. In today’s era, the best approach is to use social media and engage (the audience) in some way. I think what you’re about to see is a massive inflation of people trying to become what we call creators today. We are on the edge of it all. Strap in and get ready for a rocket ship.
This interview originally appeared in The creatorsa newsletter about the people powering the creator economy. Get it in your inbox before it goes live.