Getting started with building an audience in the creator economy

How can you anticipate the content people want before they want it? How do you figure out where your audience lives online and what they like? What is a creator, after all?

At TechCrunch Disrupt 2021, we were joined by Julia Munslow, Special Projects Editor at Yahoo News, Alexis Gay, comedian and host of Non Technical Podcast, and Sushma Dwivedi, who leads communications and brand marketing at Daily Harvest. All three of our speakers come at the challenge of building a brand online from different angles, and they all had valuable perspectives to share for navigating a social media landscape that has very high expectations from anyone creating content in 2021.

Whether you’re an independent creator or a company, you need to think about how to connect with the audience that’s right for you before dipping your toes into brand building. With more platforms than ever, and more savvy content perpetually upping the social game, it’s worth remembering that building your audience doesn’t just mean accumulating a sky high follower count.

“It doesn’t really help anybody to try and be everything to everyone at any size of brand, no matter how big or small,” Dwivedi said. “… When you’re really looking to galvanize a base, and build some momentum amongst a dedicated base of customers, it serves you to really think about who they are. What do they need? Where are they and how on those platforms are they being communicated to?”

Before you can study an audience you want to reach, you have to figure out where they live online. And as new social platforms and products emerge, that process can require quite a bit of trial and error. For Daily Harvest, TikTok was a successful experiment that continues to pay off, but not all experiments will work out — and according to Dwivedi, that’s just fine. Daily Harvest dipped a toe into Clubhouse when the social audio app took off, but because of the visual nature of its brand and audience, it wasn’t a perfect fit.

Evil Geniuses CEO on the path toward esports ubiquity

The pandemic brought a new class of gamers online for the very first time, and the gaming space has never been larger or more diverse. At the same time, while esports saw some viewership gains in the past year, it still had to deal with plenty of hurdles tied to pandemic restrictions on physical events.

At TechCrunch Disrupt, we recently sat down with Evil Geniuses CEO Nicole LaPointe Jameson who helms one of the oldest esports leagues around as one of the youngest CEOs in her class. We chatted about the challenges facing the esports industry to keep pace with a rapidly diversifying audience and the opportunities for building a league that can adjust to those shifts faster than others.

Evil Geniuses (EG) was founded in 1999 and has had a winding journey since. LaPointe Jameson got involved when the Chicago-based firm she worked for, Peak6 Investments, took over EG as part of an Amazon divestment following its acquisition of Twitch, which had previously owned Evil Geniuses. The capital injection came at a time when esports leagues were finally catching the attention of institutional investors who saw big opportunity in the space.

Years later, that potential is still there, but the path toward mainstream embrace has been more circuitous than many had hoped. Hard viewership numbers are hard to come by but signal a subindustry that’s growing more slowly than the overall industry it sits inside. Still, LaPointe Jameson believes the industry has plenty of room left for rising players to innovate and create new opportunities for the whole industry.

Ben Rubin explains why the Web3 era of social media will help everybody get paid

After a decade of a handful of dominant social media companies trading what are essentially publishing tools in exchange for serving us all an endless deluge of ads, the winds of change are finally blowing — in a few different directions at once.

Content creators (arguably either a special echelon of influencers or anyone who posts online) are slowly siphoning off some of the power that social media companies have wielded for years. Meanwhile, decentralization is sweeping worlds like finance and art, threatening existing orders and pointing toward a future defined by alternative currencies and digital collectibles. Those trends are bound to converge sooner rather than later, and in some corners of the social internet, it’s already beginning to show.

At TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 last week, Houseparty founder Ben Rubin, now working on a new company called Slashtalk, delved into some of those intersections. Rubin created Meerkat, the darling social app of SXSW 2015, which later evolved into a spontaneous video chat app known as Houseparty. Epic Games bought Houseparty in 2019, but Rubin’s prescience for emerging social trends didn’t stop there.

These days, everyone seems to be abuzz about decentralization. As with any nascent tech trend on the horizon, a lot of jargon gets thrown around. Within the DeFi (decentralized finance) and NFT (non-fungible token) communities, Web3 is the term du jour that captures the revolutionary potential that decentralized networks hold for the future of the internet.

D-ID launches ‘Speaking Portrait,’ a way to turn photos into custom, photo-realistic videos

The company whose tech powered the sensational MyHeritage app that turned classic family photos into lifelike moving portraits is back with a new implementation of its technology: Transforming still photographs into ultra-realistic video, capable of saying whatever you want.

D-ID’s Speaking Portraits may look like the notorious “deepfakes” that have made headlines over the past couple of years, but the underlying tech is actually quite different, and there’s no training required for basic functionality.

D-ID, which actually debuted at TechCrunch Battlefield in 2018 with a very different focus (scrambling facial recognition tech), debuted its new Speaking Portraits product live at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021. The company showed off a number of use cases, including using its new tech to create a multilingual TV anchor capable of expressing various emotions; creating virtual chatbot personas for customer support interactions; developing training courses for professional development use; and creating interactive conversational video ad kiosks.

Both this new product and D-ID’s partnership with MyHeritage, which saw the latter company’s app briefly take over the top of Apple’s App Store charts, are obviously major departures from the company’s initial focus. Up until even May of last year, D-ID was still raising funding based on its earlier approach, but its partnership with MyHeritage debuted in February, followed by a similar deal with GoodTrust after that and a splashy tie-up with Warner Bros. on the Hugh Jackman film “Reminiscence” that allowed fans to insert themselves into its trailer.

D-ID’s pivot might seem more dramatic than most, but from a technical perspective its new focus on bringing photos to life is not so far off from its de-identification software. D-ID CEO and co-founder Gil Perry told me that the company chose the new direction because it was apparent that there’s a very large addressable market when it comes to this kind of application.

Big-name clients like Warner Bros., as well as an App Store-dominating app from a relatively unknown brand, would seem to support that assessment. Speaking Portraits, however, is aimed at clients both big and small, and allows anyone to generate a full HD video from a source image, plus either recorded speech or typed text. D-ID is launching the product with support for English, Spanish and Japanese, but plans to add other languages in the future, too, as customers request support for those.

D-ID offers two basic categories of Speaking Portrait, including a “Single Portrait” that can be made using just a single still image, which features an animated head but other parts stay static. This one will also work with the existing background in the photo only.

For a bit more uncanny reality, there’s a “Trained Character” option that requires submitting a 10-minute training video of the character requested, following guidelines supplied by the company. This has the advantage of being able to work against a custom, swappable background, and features some preset animation options for the character’s body and hands.

Check out an example of a Speaking Portrait newscaster generated using the trained character method below to get a sense of how realistic it can be:

The demo that Perry showed us live at Disrupt today was created from a still photo of himself as a child. The photo was mapped to facial expressions performed by a sort of human puppeteer who also voiced the script for what the Speaking Portrait version of Gil ended up saying during the interaction between his current and younger self. You can see a video of how the speaker’s expressions were mirrored by the animated photo below:

Obviously, the ability to create photo-realistic videos from just a single photo that can convincingly deliver any lines you want is a bit of a hair-raising prospect. We’ve already seen far-ranging debates about the ethics of deepfakes, as well as industry efforts to try to fingerprint and identify when AI generated realistic, but artificial, results.

Perry said at Disrupt that D-ID is “keen to make sure it’s used for good, not bad,” and that in order to achieve that, they’re going to be issuing a pledge at the end of October, alongside partners, that outline their commitments to “transparency and consent” when it comes to using tech like Speaking Portraits. The purpose of said commitment is to ensure that “users aren’t confused about what they’re seeing and that people involved give their consent.”

While D-ID wants to make assurances in its terms of use and public position on misuse of this kind of tech, Perry says it “can’t do it alone,” which is why he’s calling on others in the ecosystem to join forces in efforts to avoid abuse.

How Ryan Reynolds has mastered authentic marketing

Most people know Ryan Reynolds from his movies, but the actor has his hands in a number of entrepreneurial ventures. He owns a majority stake in Mint Mobile, a mobile virtual network operator, which has grown more than 50,000% in the past three years. And he was also invested in Aviation Gin before selling it for a staggering $600 million last year.

But perhaps most applicable to the startup world, Reynolds is also a founder of Maximum Effort, a marketing firm responsible for the ads you’ve seen for the Deadpool franchise, Aviation Gin and Mint Mobile (of course), and that hilarious ad featuring Satan and the year 2020 as a match made in hell.

I’ve found that everything that I’ve built or made, that I value and hold dear in this world, including my family and businesses, have all been built on the foundations of failures and mistakes.

At TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 this week, we sat down with Reynolds to discuss how startups can use “fast-vertising” (a term Reynolds coined), which involves treating real-time cultural moments as a springboard, to build their own brand buzz.

We also talked about why he invests in big, well-established businesses instead of small tech startups, why Mint isn’t available in Canada yet, and perhaps most importantly, how authenticity and failure are actually the keys to his success.

The secrets of great marketing

Reynolds knows exactly what he brings to the table when he makes a deal with a company. First and foremost, it’s awareness. He’s Ryan Reynolds, after all, and can introduce a lesser-known brand relatively easily, considering he has more than 18 million Twitter followers and nearly 40 million followers on Instagram.

But unlike other celebrities who tweet inauthentic promotions of brands they’re associated with, Reynolds truly wants a seat at the table, and has a level of credibility with his fans and followers that is a direct result of his personality.

WarnerMedia’s Andy Forssell discusses a fascinating first year for HBO Max

In some ways, the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous. No one roots for a pandemic, but WarnerMedia launched HBO Max just as cities and states across the U.S. went under curfews and lockdowns as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.

In many ways, the service seemed well positioned, even in a sector crowded with platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+. HBO Max brought decades of critically acclaimed series under its belt, including “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Game of Thrones,” coupled with pricey acquisitions like the “Friends” and “South Park” back catalogues.

Filling out the offering was a healthy catalogue of 1,300 films and television series from CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, among others. WarnerMedia, meanwhile, provided access to perennial favorite Looney Tunes shorts and the complete catalogue of DC Comics films and televisions shows. All told, HBO Max promised 10,000 hours of movies and TV at launch.

But if Quibi’s eight-month lifespan is any indication, all the money, star power and executive bonafides can’t buy you a successful streaming service. Over the last few years, many big names had tried and failed at that game — the streaming graveyard is littered with good intentions and big-budget flameouts.

AI luminary Kai-Fu Lee and sci-fi author Chen Qiufan predict the future in ‘AI 2041’

Where will today’s technologies lead us over the next 20 years, and what will an AI-infused world look like across the globe? Sinovation founder and AI thought leader Kai-Fu Lee and breakout sci-fi author Chen Qiufan (AKA Stanley Chen) make an educated guess in “AI 2041,” a set of 10 stories and 10 essays exploring and explaining the potential and pitfalls of AI.

After reading the book — I’ll be publishing a review shortly — I talked with Lee and Chen at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 about how the collaboration came about, how their points of view coincided and differed, and why they think the future will be how they describe it.

(Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.)

Lee and Chen found each other a few years ago — one a successful thought leader and entrepreneur in AI, the other an author whose incisive depictions of near-future dilemmas earned him international acclaim. They decided to collaborate on a hybrid work that would have narratives born out of informed speculation and expository pieces illustrated by narrative.

“It’s really to tell the whole story of AI, because AI is so important. Everyone should know more about it, but it’s also a little bit intimidating because it sounds technical,” Lee told me. “And what better way to tell the story than by truly telling stories?”

“We knew each other briefly back in the day in Google, and I was always thinking about writing a book about future technology, based on very specific science, facts, and theories,” Chen said. “But without Kai-Fu, I couldn’t do that, because I’m not the expert in the domain.”

The result of their collaboration is “AI 2041”: 10 stories by Chen set in the titular year, all over the world, with people from all walks of life encountering AI in the many ways that the authors think it may come to shape society over the next two decades. Each story is followed by an explanatory essay by Lee that goes into the technical aspects and why they might lead to that future.

The stories are independent but happen in something like a shared world, each illustrating a potential application, conflict, or change in thinking that AI could lead to. Importantly, the AI is recognizable as an evolution of existing technologies.

“We started with a framework of four things,” said Lee. “One is I wanted to cover around 15 technologies in 10 stories. I also wanted to order them so that they go from easy to hard, so it’s kind of like an AI textbook — you know, you learn it by reading stories. Then we both wanted it to be in different industries, like education and healthcare and so on, to show that AI impacts everywhere. And then lastly, Stanley wanted it to be in 10 different countries.”

Take for example the story “Gods Behind the Masks.” It concerns a talented deepfake creator working out of Lagos who knows the ins and outs of generative adversarial networks, image inspection, media pathways, and so on. He is tasked with creating a video of a long-dead celebrity that fools not just people watching it, but the hosting service’s automated scanners, the government’s facial recognition algorithms, and all the rest — but he begins to suspect there’s an unsavory motive behind it all (I won’t spoil the rest).

Adventr uses patented voice-control tech to allow anyone to create interactive videos

We’ve all been there — you’re watching a horror movie, and you know that the main character definitely shouldn’t go into that creepy house, but no matter how much you yell at your TV, you can’t change his fate. But what if you told the guy on screen to steer clear of the house, and he actually listened?

This could become possible with the latest venture from entertainment entrepreneur Devo Harris, a Grammy winner and longtime business collaborator of artists like Kanye West and John Legend.

After launching in beta in August 2020, Adventr created a user-friendly interface where anyone can drag and drop elements to make interactive videos. Thousands of users have built interactive experiences, from space-themed children’s education modules to promotional videos for luxury fashion clients like Marc Jacobs and LVMH.

But at TechCrunch Disrupt, where Adventr is one of 20 startups competing in Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield, founder and CEO Harris unveiled an element of the product that will set Adventr apart: a patented voice-control technology that lets users dictate the course of a video.

Specifically, the patent is on the technology that uses voice recognition to change the course of a video in the middle of a stream. It can also connect to other databases and applications to look up answers and respond to questions in real time.

“This is not about ‘turn up the volume,’ this is about, ‘don’t go into that room,'” Harris told TechCrunch. “If I can talk to my TV, if I can talk to my phone, why can’t I talk to my video? Our technology allows these videos to use your microphone to understand and respond in real time to what that viewer wants. The vast majority of the internet is video, so we’re enabling video to perform like the rest of these smart devices.”

Image Credits: Adventr

Though Harris emphasizes that he and his team — which is currently just five strong — are creatives first, he thinks that Adventr has exciting applications in e-commerce. He references a scene in the 2002 movie Minority Report, where Tom Cruise encounters a hologram at the GAP that asks him about his personalized shopping experience.

In an example video of how the voice-control technology works, a shopper goes to Target to find a pajama set. As the viewer, you can use voice commands like “show me the green one” or “find a size large” to determine what item to purchase. If you decide to buy the pajama set, you’ll be taken to Target’s website, where you can manually make the purchase, but Harris hopes that down the road, the entire experience will be completely native to Adventr.

Currently, Adventr’s tools are available on a subscription basis, but a free plan lets users experiment with the product before they pay for a pro ($29 per month) or business ($99 per month) plan. Adventr isn’t necessarily an e-commerce, or education, or entertainment platform — it’s a tool with a variety of applications that businesses and artists alike can use.

“Think of Adventr as a video-based API, like Twilio meets Vimeo,” Harris said. “Essentially, what our users will be able to do is to put in phrases or keywords that would trigger certain video clips to play.”

Adventr launched with a $1 million seed round, but hasn’t yet announced further financing. But the startup is already selling its product to subscribers, offering it an income stream at an early stage. Though Harris did not disclose specific financials, he said that without spending on customer acquisition, Adventr’s revenue has increased 80x from the beginning of 2021 until now.

Folio’s 24-year-old founder is bootstrapping a curated, online bookstore

In the midst of TechCrunch Disrupt, hundreds of founders will video call into Startup Alley, eager to share what makes their company stand out. But 24-year-old Clare Carroll’s video background speaks for itself as she calls in from her NYC apartment, which doubles as a stock room for hundreds of books she sells online.

Just months ago, the recent Marquette University graduate left her job in consulting at IBM to found Folio, an online bookshop that helps Gen Z and millennial readers discover (and then purchase) their next favorite books.

Carroll is a company of one, doing everything from web design, order packaging, social media marketing, and accounting on her own. But as she rediscovered her love of reading in quarantine, Carroll realized that her peers didn’t know where to turn for book recommendations.

“Goodreads has benefits, but the UI hasn’t been updated since Amazon bought it,” Carroll says — and, at least judging by the image in TechCrunch’s article on the acquisition from eight years ago, she’s not wrong. “The problem of helping people rediscover their love of books really resonated with me. I couldn’t find something I wanted online, and I couldn’t believe it didn’t exist: a cool online bookstore. I was really reflecting on what I want to get out of my career, so I was like, okay, screw it, I guess I’ll make it.”

Folio (Photo by Christina Stoever)

Companies like and have proven that bookworms want an alternative to buying books on Amazon, and The Storygraph is trying to build the next Goodreads.

But Folio lies somewhere in the middle, trying to solve discovery while helping support publishers and independent booksellers at the same time. Right now, Folio has about 200 hand-picked books in stock, including buzzworthy hits like “Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters, “Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller, and “Crying in H-Mart” by Michelle Zauner.

“We don’t try to have every book in stock. We never will,” said Carroll. “Even if a book is targeted toward my demographic of 18-to-30-year-olds, skewing female, we still scan and pre-select for quality. We will probably never have more than 1,000 different books.”

A lot of Folio’s stock comes directly from publishers, which means that a book will cost, on average, about $18 to $20. “We’re not falling into the Amazon trap of like, let’s try to bring the price down as low as possible. I believe in paying artists for their work, and devaluing books is doing no one any favors,” Carroll says. But other titles are purchased as overstock — that means that if a brick-and-mortar store doesn’t sell all the copies they purchase, the books can be returned to a wholesaler, which then sells at a discount to businesses like Folio.

Folio has only been online since August — Carroll started the company in May this year — but through influencer collaborations, an affiliate program, a book club, and its addictive book suggestion quiz, Carroll says the company has developed an enthusiastic consumer base. Though she declined to share sales numbers just yet, she said that about 30% of customers post about their purchase on social media, and the company has many repeat customers.

“We really see ourselves as the Sephora of books,” Carroll says. “You go in, you browse, and there are other options, but you’re not completely overwhelmed. Whatever you get there, someone else has already said, ‘Yes, this is worthwhile.'”


Happaning aims to be a ‘Google Street View’ for video

A new startup called Happaning wants to make video a more immersive experience by allowing people to watch the same event from multiple perspectives. Or, as co-founder and CEO Andrew Eniwumide likes to say, it’s “Google Street View, but with video.” The company believes its unique technology offering these multi-vantage point videos could ultimately do more than just introduce a new user experience for video — it could solve other issues with misinformation or deep fakes, for example, as there would be other, verified perspectives of the same scene that could be used to fact check any attempts at misleading others through video edits.

Some of its loftier goals in this area are further down the line, however.

Launching today at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 as the “wildcard” in the Startup Battlefield, Happaning’s early beta version will first introduce its concept of multi-vintage videos, or what it’s trademarked as “ViiVid” technology. This is a system where users create video content using its mobile app which is then combined alongside videos filmed at that same location at the same time.

While the system is not using blockchain technology to verify the videos in any way, there are some similarities with that concept. Happaning borrows from the blockchain’s idea of a decentralized network where many sources are contributing to something like a master ledger. But in Happaning, no single node has all the same information as another — that is, one person’s video is unlike anyone else’s. Together, however, they display a fuller truth about what took place at a given place and time.

The company has patented some concepts related to its technologies involving synchronizing multiple video streams and the user experience of swiping through different video perspectives, locally in the U.K., where the team is based, and with the World Intellectual Property Organization.

The initial use cases for such technology would be recording real-world events like weddings, concerts, sports events, protests or marches, or any others where a larger crowd of people would attend. Once recorded in Happaning, you can then swipe from one video to the next to see the same event from other angles and perspectives by tapping on markers inside the video. Imagine, for example, being able to swipe from a video filmed in the back of the concert looking down on the stage to a video in the front row.

Eniwumide says he came up with the idea for Happaning to solve the issues around how video is being abused to mislead people. He notes that the issue is widespread across social media, pointing to a report that indicates Facebook posts from misinformation sources were getting 6 times more engagement than those from reputable news sites.

“As time has moved on, storytelling media has become more and more sophisticated to the point where now we’ve got 360 videos. But we’re also seeing with videos, is the fact that they’re subject to abuse, they’re subject to careless editing, they’re subject to bias, and even deep fakes,” Eniwumide says. He imagined that an app that could verify video content hadn’t been altered and was really taking place where it claimed to be, could be useful.

“We like to think of it like Google Street View, but with video,” Eniwumide continues. “So you could be recording a video and somebody else is recording in the local area, and we synchronize those video feeds by time, location, and audio and visual cues.”

Then someone watching could swipe in the direction they want to move in, similar to how Google Street View lets you move in different directions to see things from other angles and vantage points.

At launch, the focus is on live-streamed videos, but further down the road, the startup wants to develop its IP into more of a technology standard and offer ways for the videos to be exported and published elsewhere. The debut version of Happaning is very much an MVP and technology demo — the overall user interface and experience doesn’t look or feel fully developed at this point. But the app is free to use, with longer-term plans for subscription tiers, presuming it gains traction.

Eniwumide’s background includes over 12 years of experience as both a software developer and principal consultant at U.K. engineering firms including Detica and BAE Systems. He’s joined by CFO Leslie Sagay, CMO Joanna Steele, CTO Colin Agbabiaka, and AJ Adesanya, who works on infrastructure. Most of the team, however, is not full-time with the startup at this point.

Happaning has raised a total of £219,500 in pre-seed funding at a £3 million pre-money valuation, and is aiming to raise a £500,000 seed at a £4.5 million pre-money valuation.