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The reality of finding success in the creator economy

December 2, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

It’s possible for anyone to make a living as a creator, but in reality, not everyone does. Still, the prospect of stardom and money isn’t always the reason people put themselves out there online. 

“Today when people speak about the creator economy, I think they go to the monetization piece, but there’s a lot of people who create for so many different reasons,” Kudzi Chikumbu, director of creator community at TikTok, said during Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Wednesday.

Some creators make content to express themselves. Some make content to serve their communities or to exercise their creativity. And there are those looking to build a careers on platforms that have proved they can be launchpads for successful businesses. 

Chikumbu himself never set out to become a social media star, let alone a TikTok employee. “I’ve had a lot of blogs, and a lot of channels, and newsletters, and failed ones,” he said. “I was an accountant before, but this gave me another way to be my full self.” 

If you’re on TikTok, you may know Chikumbu as @sircandleman, a reviewer of luxury candles. 

And while YouTube may have been one of the earliest places where creators found success expressing themselves online, it’s the platforms developed since that have elevated the game—particularly when it comes to making money as a creative. 

“Platforms like TikTok, like Instagram have democratized the ability to make content that looks good, that is entertaining,” said Avi Gandhi, head of creator partnerships at Patreon. “The creator economy actually has been around basically forever. It is only now that the tools and the technology…have existed to enable creators to scale their audiences and actually monetize them.”  

But some of the people working to build wealth through these platforms aren’t looking for extreme wealth or the same kind of Hollywood stardom their predecessors once came to Gandhi, formerly a Hollywood talent agent, to find. 

The Patreon exec described a generation of emerging creators who grew up on YouTube and have no interest in winning over the gatekeepers of media they rarely consume. “They don’t care about being on Netflix. They want to do whatever it is they’re passionate about, and they want to make a living doing that,” Gandhi said. 

Some creators also aren’t looking for long-term relationships with platforms whose strategic shifts can make or break their businesses.

“These independent creators are really starting to build into their owned and operated experiences,” said Gina Bianchini, cofounder and CEO of Mighty Networks, a company that helps creators build their communities. 

She described an environment in which creatives are increasingly looking to get off content conveyor belts to build their own network effects. 

Still, other creators aren’t looking to quit their jobs and support themselves by monetizing their passions. “There is the world of ‘I want to do this and only,’” Chikumbu said, noting some creators are looking to build secondary income streams and not influencer wealth. “Not everyone is only a creator.”

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