Creator monetization startups are cropping up left and right as the tech world embraces the fast-growing creator economy. But Patreon, founded in 2013, has been around since before words like "influencer" were in our vocabulary — back when "Tik Tok" was a Kesha song, rather than the social platform that everyone is trying to emulate.
After tripling its valuation to $4 billion earlier this year, Patreon is at a crossroads. Will it continue to be the company to beat when it comes to building for creators? At the same time, can Patreon stay ahead of its competition while making creators feel that the product is looking out for their best interests?
"We are not going to be one of those companies that defined the first eight years, but not the next eight years [of the creator economy]," Patreon Chief Product Officer Julian Gutman told TechCrunch.
Speaking with TechCrunch about the platform's plans for 2022, Gutman said that Patreon hopes to stay ahead of the curve by aggressively hiring, especially in product and engineering. Gutman himself only joined Patreon in January, bouncing over from Instagram, where he was head of Product for Instagram's home feed experience. In August, Patreon also hired Senior VP of Engineering Utkarsh Srivastava, who formerly led teams at Google and Twitter.
"We've hired 60 folks across product, engineering and design in the last quarter, and kind of expect that pace of hiring to continue into the next year," Gutman said. "We have folks joining from Instagram, Uber and Square, and all these companies that I would say are like the first generation of the creator economy."
Patreon isn't a new company, but Gutman thinks that since its mission from the get-go has been to help creative people make money, it's better prepared to lead in this supposed "second generation" than social media platforms like his former employer Instagram. Regardless, social platforms are investing heavily in direct-to-creator payments. But Patreon's model enables sustainable, monthly creator payouts, as opposed to one-time surprise bonuses.
Patreon has 400 employees now, but Gutman said the company hopes to end next year with closer to 1,000 employees. Within product, engineering and design specifically, Patreon hopes to scale from 150 employees (including 60 recent hires) to 400 in 2022.
"I think it's a reflection of what we want to build, and the pace and the quality at which we want to build it," Gutman said. "We're really excited for potential creators right now, and we want to just be giving them as many tools as possible as quickly as possible to help them."
Patreon has already teased some of the projects it's working on for 2022, including a native video platform (so exclusive video content can live on-platform, not in an unlisted YouTube link), an improved posting experience with more formatting options, different ways of organizing content on a Patreon page, more data and analytics, a cleaner app design, simpler playback experiences for multimedia and more. The platform is even planning to revamp its billing system, which Patreon says has been "a source of confusion and frustration" for many of its creators.
But another big question for Patreon is whether it will bring crypto technology to the platform. Earlier this fall, Gutman, along with founder and CEO Jack Conte, confirmed that Patreon is exploring crypto as a way for creators to make money. Patreon floated the idea of crypto creator coins in its fall Creator Policy Engagement Program update, but at a subsequent livestream, creators expressed concerns about how Patreon dabbling in crypto could impact their relationships with their patrons.
The actions that Patreon takes as a company impact the livelihoods of the creators making a living on their platform. Some creators on that livestream worried that if Patreon launched creator coins, their crypto-averse patrons might unsubscribe, even if they themselves weren't using those tools.
"There are some really interesting fundamental pieces of [crypto] technology that are actually quite aligned with our mission and what everyone's wanted for the creator economy for a long time — rights ownership, independence, owning your content, owning your business, owning your audience, decentralization, all these themes," Gutman told TechCrunch. "But I don't think we're ready to jump on any particular application or bandwagon."
Patreon does not have a dedicated team working on crypto, though there are some people in the company who are passionate about crypto and formed what Gutman called "an internal pod in their spare time." He said that early next year, Patreon might consider building a small team of a few people dedicated to investigating how the company could possibly leverage crypto to support creators.
"It's not, 'hey, let's go build an NFT platform right now,' but you know, a couple of folks that are focused on this full time," Gutman said. "And by the way, they might conclude, 'Hey, you know what, there's nothing for us to build here right now,' which is a totally fine, reasonable conclusion."
Patreon isn't taking the question of whether or not to dip its toes into crypto lightly. The choice could divide its community and force creators to act as spokespeople for the company's decisions, which can alienate individual creators' patrons.
Earlier this month, Kickstarter announced it would move its crowdfunding platform to the blockchain, sparking backlash from users, especially those who have environmental concerns about some blockchain technology. Meanwhile, in November, Discord CEO Jason Citron tweeted an image of the crypto wallet MetaMask integrated into the chat platform's interface. But even crypto-savvy users worried that linking crypto wallets with Discord accounts could make it easier to carry out fraud and scams on the platform. After some users urged each other to cancel their paid Discord Nitro subscriptions in protest of the company's perceived movements toward crypto, Citron put out a statement saying that Discord doesn't have plans to pursue the technology at this time.
"I think one other important thing for us is over the next few years, we want to provide a toolset that creators can piece together differently," Gutman said. "So we might have a crypto part of the toolset if we think there's something there that creators might choose to use."
But more immediately, Gutman emphasized that community will be a focus for Patreon in 2022.
"When people think creators, they think content. But so much of what creators do is community today," Gutman said. "They really are these community leaders. They help communities come together around a shared topic of interest or a shared passion, and I think it's a really undervalued part of what creators offer the world, particularly in this day and age."
Right now, a popular perk for creators to offer their fans is access to private, patron-only Discord servers. Gutman said that Patreon wants to create on-platform products for building community in addition to its suite of integrations with platforms like Discord.
"We are creator-first, so if creators want to use an integration and they prefer an integration, we're really excited by that," Gutman said. "It's not so much an on-platform versus off-platform type of battle, but we are really excited to look at building more first-party community tools, and one of the things we're excited about is where content meets community."
Changes at a company like Patreon can be anxiety-inducing for creators who rely on the platform for their livelihood. In the new year, Patreon plans to conduct a creator census to maintain a direct line of communication with the people who stand to be most affected by big shifts in the company's product plans.