William Leonard

Hey, ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. My name is William Leonard, your host for today. And I’m really excited to sit down with the founder and CEO of Hashtag Pay Me, Cynthia Ruff. Based in Atlanta, Hashtag Pay Me is a software that helps influencers determine how much they should charge brands for their content. Founder Cynthia Ruff built the company in Georgia Tech’s startup accelerator Create-X and as an influencer for years. Cynthia learns the intricacies of negotiating content contracts with brands. On today’s episode of the podcast, she joins me to share why she turned down early startup funding, and how content creation has evolved over the last few years. And her thoughts on the current state of the modern creator economy. Before we dive into today’s episode, be sure to mark your calendars for Thursday, September 1st, as the Valor Art of Inclusion Commission officially opens. This is an invitation for all Georgia artists who can help express the ideal of inclusion through their art. If this is you, please feel free to apply at valor.vc/art-commission-inclusion. And also, we had a fantastic 15th showcase for the startup runway. Applications for the next showcases are now open. So, if you’re a PreSeed Founder in the Southern US with less than 200,000 in funding, please feel free to apply or learn more at startuprunway.org. Now let’s jump into today’s episode. Cynthia, thank you so much for joining me today.

Cynthia Ruff

Thanks for having me, excited to be here.

William Leonard

Likewise, I’ve been excited about this conversation for the last couple of weeks now. But let’s start off with your background and the story of your journey into entrepreneurship.

Cynthia Ruff

My background, I went to school after the financial market crash and I really wanted to be a journalist. My parents were like, “Please, God, go do anything else.” And so I went and got a degree in finance and thought I was gonna go become like a mutual fund manager. Turns out, I just enjoyed working with startups. I ended up doing sales compensation, into another role of HR executive compensation. This creative bug always slept inside of me. I wanted to start a blog. I saw a lot of other people my age having blogs and they made it successful and it was like, “Hey, this would be a good way to have my own creative writing outlet alongside my finance job.” I started a blog in 2014 and shortly thereafter, I started monetizing it. About four years after I started my first blog, I left the corporate world full time to go be a creator full time. That was a very exciting and scary jump because in 2018, being a full-time creator still wasn’t a very solid foundation for making money. I guess like I wrote when you come from a respected corporate position as well. Since then, I had my own digital marketing agency, and then went back to school. I continuously felt this need that I wanted to get back into doing something creative, and alongside the Creator Academy, yet, I still actually really craved and missed my job in corporate comp consulting. We can talk about it later. But there was just this whole confluence of events that just led us to say, can we do comp consulting for a greater economy?

William Leonard

Interesting. That’s incredibly fascinating. I love the background of you kind of entering the workforce in this strong period of uncertainty, one of the worst financial recessions we’ve seen, and still having your passion embedded in you, wanting to write and have this creative outlet and then monetizing it. How did you monetize your blog after you started it a few months later?

Cynthia Ruff

There were very limited resources at the time. I found an affiliate network that did base on clicks and I remember like the first click, that was a sale and it was like five cents. And I’m like, “Oh, my God, I’ve made it.” So then I explored doing Google Ads because Google Ads was starting to roll out to more mainstream websites that were not just blogger based. I built my first blog on WordPress, and then RewardStyle came out, so you could start earning more from affiliate sales. It was about 2015 when I had my first brand come to me, they were like, “Hey, we want to send you this thing. We use it.” I charge a $15 styling fee and they’re like, “Sure. Okay, that sounds great.” And I’m like, okay, great. We were kind of off to the races back in 2015 with that and realized, that asking to get paid for work online was not as scary as so I had made it out to be.

William Leonard

Tell us a little bit more about Hashtag Pay Me and give us the 90-second overview. And then, I would love for you to elaborate further on what was the Aha! the moment for you as this creative individual who had been a blogger and started a digital marketing agency. What was that moment for you to say, “Hey, there’s a need in the market? Let me go solve it.”

Cynthia Ruff

Absolutely. When I was at my Masters at Georgia Tech, I was in clapper product development class and our professor, Professor Karthik, was saying I want you guys to think about solving a problem that a customer has, don’t just solve for you a solution that you think the market needs. And I was like, wait, that’s an interesting way to think about how to make your next company. And at the same moment, my friend emailed me and she’s like, “Hey, how much would you charge if you want to manage our social media?” I was like, I don’t know and here I am being five years in the industry, I still have no clue what to charge for creative services. There’s no like good resource besides just asking by word of mouth. Throughout collaborative product development, we did a whole bunch of customer surveys and I kept finding the same issue with not only brands but also influencers saying, we rely on sharing all of this information, word of mouth to learn how to charge and learn how to price and then I was like, wait, why don’t we just build the tools we use in comp consulting for the greater economy? Why can’t there be a pay scale for the greater economy? Why can’t we have the same thing that we use, it’s the same parameters, the only difference is you have this little function of marketing spend that overlaps it. That was the moment when I was like, this is it. This is what we’re building. I have to go solve this problem.

William Leonard

I love that. Kind of gives us the 90-second overview of what Hashtag Pay Me is today.

Cynthia Ruff

Today, Hashtag Pay Me allows all creators to price their sponsored work in a very unbiased setting. A lot of word-of-mouth pricing is very biased which leads to underpricing in the market and which is why you see a lot of like BIPOC creators versus white creators have huge pay disparities. Because if you think about your friend group, where you end up sharing information, they probably look a lot like you. A lot of information is very disparaged. Today, we allow all creators to price in a very unbiased setting. Tomorrow or in the future, we’re going to allow creators to act as their own agents. We’re going to give them their own tools and resources about how their audience is performing, and what kind of creators they can collaborate with to help them grow their audience and to make sure that they are like meeting their goals. And then also be able to give them the tools and resources to go up and get brand deals without having to enter a marketplace setting. A lot of creators who are in that early to like mid-funnel, becoming like a full-time slash established career still spend 10-15 hours a month trying to find brand contacts, trying to learn what your audience wants, trying to do all these things that could really just be wrapped up in a nice little tool that says, hey, here’s who I am. Here’s what I want to do. Here are the brands that I want to target for the year. What do I need to do to do that? How much can I charge to make sure I’m getting paid fairly for that work?

William Leonard

I love that you’re granting access to, historically, groups that have large pay disparities to have true transparency as to what they should be charging.

Cynthia Ruff

Another problem too, Instagram, if you’ve heard the recent update, is now going to help small creators grow faster. They’re kind of just saying, whatever established creators, we don’t care about you. The whole metric of pricing of a breach is going to start to become a little bit more moot. We are going to have to start pricing for the job. How much is the job worth? Again, this goes back to like how corporate comp consulting works. We price for the job, we don’t price based on what this white guy makes more than this black guy. We’re like, okay, well, this is what the job prices so this is what we’re going to pay.

William Leonard

Right. As you think about the types of influencers, I know there’s like nano influencers, micro-influencers, do you think you can maybe give us the 101 on the types of influencers there are and then maybe the types of influencers that would find true value from Hashtag Pay Me in its current state today?

Cynthia Ruff

Absolutely. Every platform has its own set of creators, each one has its tiers, and all the tiers are pretty much the same, although, for our calculations, we have like split one of them. I’ll go into that. So you have your nano, which is up to 10,000 followers. You have micro which is 10,000 to 50,000, you have mid-tier, which is like 50,000 to like quarter million. We call this low mid-tier in our data set and then you have upper mid-tier, which is a quarter million to half a million. You’ve got macro which is half a million to a million, and then you have like celebrity mega, and those people have their own agents. They have their own whole team so definitely not someone that we target would be like a mega macro creator because when you get to that point, you really kind of have like this cue score that you would have to start evaluating how recognizable is this person in the world. That’s not something that we can focus on today. So for us, we really kind of help any size creator because we see this with a disparity and it’s really most of like a time spent in the industry itself. We help any creator who is on that early journey, maybe they’ve had one or two sponsored posts that they want to get more and they want to do more with it. They want to level up their creator career so that they are now able to price and become a full-time creator and create that consistency so that they can make this a full-time business.

William Leonard

This is fascinating because I feel like the content creation, content creator economy is an incredibly ripe space right now when we think about growth and overall adoption and just kind of some of the new entrants into the market that is helping creators optimize their earnings and really understand and give them transparency. I’m curious as to how you see Hashtag Pay Me differentiated from other adjacent players in the space now.

Cynthia Ruff

We absolutely advocate for fair creator pay across the board. One thing that we are starting to work on and turn on later this year is called the Hashtag Pay Me pledge where brands are able to come to us and say, “We need help pricing greater work. What do we pay creators?” We have a good healthy set of brands that are ready for this data to come and to help their platforms, so they can have more predictable marketing spending and more assurances that they’re going to be able to staff the creators that they want to hire. They can market and budget for it because marketing budgets are set in October of the previous year, before they go live. If you don’t have accurate scope for influencer marketing and influencer marketing spending keeps going up and up and up throughout the year, you’re going to run out of a budget by Q3. When q4 comes around your holiday season and you have no more marketing budget for influencers, your CEOs could be like, why didn’t you guys budget for this properly, right? So us being able to be a reliable data source for them to help price their influencer marketing campaigns is going to be very valuable to make sure that they can hire influencers on a fair and reliable data point so that they can continue to staff properly throughout the year and make sure that influencers who are going to go and price their work are getting paid what they should, according to the job and the market at that time.

William Leonard

Right. You’re kind of providing tools for the brand and the creator as well to give them the right management tools to say, “Hey, we want to allocate for a certain amount of creators this year. Let’s make that happen.”

Cynthia Ruff

Yes, exactly. We really see ourselves sitting adjacent next to everyone who is doing stuff in the creator economy saying, well, let’s go get a relative data point and let’s make sure that this is priced properly for the work that is being exchanged.

William Leonard

Something you mentioned earlier was that you’re going to allow some of the smaller creators to operate as their own agents. I think that’s incredibly fascinating because you’re kind of bridging out this third-party intermediary that is eating into the profits of the creators. Talk to us more about that and why you think that strategy is going to really help the creators.

Cynthia Ruff

That’s something that was born out of my personal experiences. I’ve gotten a lot of really awesome opportunities with some of the nation’s top brands like Coca-Cola and Home Depot. Maybe it’s a little helpful that I do live in Atlanta for those kinds of opportunities, but I’ve been working with these big national brands for the entirety of my creative career. I’ve gotten a lot of national press features as well. I’ve never had an agent. I’ve just been very smart about like how to leverage my data to make sure that I’m paid and I can go and communicate my work to brands. This is something that we see is very predatory for early creators is that these fake agents go out and advocate on for a creator, but yet, they take your retainer first, and then they take a percentage of the profits from the brand deal itself. There’s no guarantee that they’ll actually get brand deals. They just have to pay this person to manage them on a list. We’re just trying to help that early creator not go into debt or like have their dreams and hopes squashed by not getting any results because they’re outsourcing it to a third party, whereas our digital third party essentially allows them to be as successful or not successful as they want to be.

William Leonard

You’re truly empowering them to have real ownership over all of their workflows and business. I love that. As we talk about and think about 2022, product releases, and launches for Hashtag Pay Me, what’s exciting for you all for the rest of the year? And then as we think about 2023, what are you all as a team most looking forward to?

Cynthia Ruff

On September 13, we officially opened a sponsored post calculator just in time for all holiday stuff. Just the feedback in general from the early stage creators that we have in our base rate calculator list, which is the one that says at minimum what you should be charging, just even like a “Thank you. I had no idea where to charge or where I should go and some of the rates that I’ve thrown out to brands using your calculation have really helped.” That feels good that that tool has already helped creators earn more money than what they’ve seen out there in the market before. When we relaunch our sponsored posts calculator in September, I’m excited to help creators exceed their idea of what they can charge for sponsored posts. 2023 is going to be that year where we really start to help creators become their own agents. We’re going to put together essentially a brand CRM where they can go add and use contacts from brands to go and find brand deals. We’re going to have a contract redlining software where they can upload something and they say, “I don’t allow any whitelisting without an extra fee.” They can go and have that kind of give a first pass before they read a contract. They know what’s in there. And then we will have a demographics implementation where we can have them put all their channels into one place. They can say like, okay, well, based off of what your audience is interested in you should probably target like these brands, or look at brands in your market who are similar to this. You can help them start to understand at scale what brands to go after, and who to reach out to, and then give them the contact and the pricing to charge for the campaign.

William Leonard

I love that. It sounds like there’s going to be a plethora of modules ranging from reaching out to brands, connecting with brands that are ripe for your type of content, and contract management. It sounds like this is going to be a truly comprehensive suite for the creator to manage all of their deals in one place.

Cynthia Ruff

We essentially are going to be like the platform from pitch to pay so we can make sure that they can help understand what they’re going after and then get compensated for it as well.

William Leonard

Cynthia, I want to transition the conversation here a bit. We’re an Atlanta-based podcast and oftentimes, you’re reading the Atlanta Business Journal, we’re just kind of staying up to date with what’s happening in the local tech and startup ecosystem. I was reading your story about how you had a potential investment on the table from an investor, but you ultimately turned that investment down. Which is, that’s kind of contrary to it, I want to get your take on what went into that decision and where you’re focused on growing your business now without outside investor capital.

Cynthia Ruff

It was definitely a very difficult decision, I had heartburn over for a few weeks before I officially said no. Ultimately, the rate wasn’t right for the scale at which I wanted to just go ahead and turn the tool on, and the amount that they were posing, I’m like, I can really just kind of pull this from my savings and do it myself. A lot of investors would talk to quite a few when we were originally raising money last summer, wanting to turn the platform into a marketplace. I didn’t want to do a marketplace for the first grab because I really want to be very unbiased. We really serve both sides of the market equally. We don’t connect and have that kind of brand agent or the brand deal thing funneled through or channel. There are plenty of platforms that do that. Also, whenever you start having data that goes through your platform where it’s a marketplace, now you’re kind of getting to this weird data silo where it’s no longer relevant, and you are only capturing deals that go through your platform. It’s not an actual unbiased view of the entire ecosystem. So that was number one. Number two, I was also having heartburn over owning the problem that I was trying to solve. I was a little afraid that what was going to happen if I decided to own this problem, would I burn my relationships with brands that I’ve worked here to create, would I burn my audience from the eight years that I’ve been influencing, would they not be interested in my content anymore? I was having this own internal identity crisis that I wasn’t really sure I was ready to own. And then I read a book by Ryan Holiday called Courage Calling. I realized that it was that ownership of the problem, it’s a very small seeming concept, but it is very big internally. And I was like, okay, for six months, I’ve had heartburn over not building this tool. I’ve been doing data collection, we were doing some other things to kind of prove our use case. And so I was like, forget it, I’m just going to own the problem. This is it. Tomorrow, I’m going out there, we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it big. I told my husband, I was like, “Hey, I’m gonna bootstrap this company. I got like three months of work that I have to do and this is what I want to do.” And he’s like, “Great, go do it.” Ever since I decided from that moment on, this is what we’re going to do. It’s just been opportunity after opportunity coming and really solidifying that decision to own the problem and go after it. The way in which we wanted and the creators that we have on our platform wanted us to go after the problem.

William Leonard

You were talking with investors, and they wanted you to pivot your model a bit, and you said, “I want to take ownership of this and maintain the vision that I set out to have from day one.” Another concern was, how this potential shift in the business pending internal or external capital would influence your customer and client relationships as well. My question to you, Cynthia, is what is your advice for other founders who are focused on their vision? How can they navigate this fundraising dynamic when investors may want to shift, retool, rethink their business model and go to market strategy? What advice do you have for founders on navigating that dialogue with investors?

Cynthia Ruff

I mean, at the end of the day, I guess I was really fortunate because my content creation business still was paying a good bit of the bills. Part of Hashtag Pay Me’s ethos is that it is a ”brand funded platform” because I used all my brand deals for the last six months to build the platform. So for me, I had that second income coming in which was nice padding so that I could have the confidence and the comfortable notion to say, “I’m going to pass right now.” For other founders, if you are going full steam ahead and this is your full force financial income, I think it’s just really important to have those conversations with investors and be like, “This is our mission and this is our vision. This is how we see it playing out for the market.” Being able to stand up for that and find investors who align with that goal as well. There are some wonderful visionary investors that we talked to who loved the product that we were trying to build with the company for the marketplace or for the Creator Academy, excuse me, and at the time, I just wasn’t ready to commit to the problem again. Some ideas are just crazy and like crazy good, and if you were able to sit behind that idea and say, 100%, I’m all in, here’s what I know, here’s how I believe in this, I think you’ll find that the more you believe in solving the problem, the more the investor will also believe in trusting your opinion on it.

William Leonard

I think that’s excellent advice. You mentioned something that is just so pivotal and critical, that anybody can give you capital but having true alignment in vision, especially at the early stages of the business is pivotal to getting to that next vector of growth as a startup. Really resonate with and appreciate that insight and advice there.

Cynthia Ruff

For us, too, it’s also really important, I see a lot of VC-funded tools for creators come out there. They do what they say they’re gonna do and then immediately marketplace. At that point, it seems like the creators kind of tune out a little bit. They’re like, “Oh, I didn’t want the marketplace, I wanted this.” For us also to be a self-funded platform, we are able to show that we really believe in this product, and we want you to know that we are committed. I think for us, it’s a really big credibility driver as well to say we have invested our own time and our own money and we’re putting all of our efforts into and we are here for you to build this tool. Let’s build it great together.

William Leonard

As we kind of think about this content creator industry as a whole, it’s just growing and bursting at the seams. If you look at companies like YouTube, I think they did about $29 billion dollars in revenue last year, which was an almost 50% increase from 2022 revenues. You look at TikTok which did $4 billion in revenue last year, estimated to hit $12 billion this year. What are your takes, Cynthia, on the state of the creator economy? What’s top of mind right now for creators as more creators just kind of flood into this space now?

Cynthia Ruff

We absolutely see this intersection of high quality versus high virality. Obviously, if you’re looking at like an XY axis, you want to be at the top right corner. Many people are saying the decentralization of the internet but Tik Tok and all the open algorithms are like new markets, new platforms come up to help support creators so that they can turn up their interest into creation which is very cool. Nothing that any job field in the past has everybody wants to say that they are able to do. I love seeing people who are interested in something and have a unique perspective. Maybe they’re like a photographer who was in corporate finance before now. They just do finances for photographers and they just absolutely blow up. It’s great to see all these people who want to explore an opportunity, combining their skills, and their interests with a platform which they can make money from.

William Leonard

Are you seeing a lot of creators that are full-time/part-time? Are you seeing people with corporate jobs, just freelancing on the side embracing that inner creativity, or are they people making the leap saying, “I’m done with corporate America. I want to fully embrace content creation.” What are you seeing?

Cynthia Ruff

It’s different for each generation. This is what we’re tracking in our data set, which is really fun. There are actually three kinds of categories of influencers: you have your full-time influencer, your part-time, and then a hobbyist. Hobbyists generally just kind of take what comes and they’re like, it’s just for fun. The part-time creator, I would say, is very common with a millennial creator. They probably have an established career and they might like it, or they might be looking for a way to get out of it so that part-time content creation channel is an opportunity for them to explore what being a full-time creator is like. Gen Z, these kids have grown up with social media in front of their faces since they were 12. They actually want to pursue being a content creator full-time. They have a totally different track and a totally different mindset when it goes to pricing and what they want out of their content, greater scope, and like how fast they have to achieve that growth. Where the millennials are a little bit more laissez-faire and they’ll come what may, they’ll make the connection, but it’s a much more slow track. The same can be said for anyone who has a corporate job, right? They are probably exploring it, or maybe they have a part-time job, and they’re exploring it. I think, especially where Hashtag Pay Me fits, we definitely help that part-time creator become more of a full-time creator on their own time.

William Leonard

Nice. That’s so true. I was going to ask if you’ve been in this space for years now. Almost a decade. Wow, kudos. How have you seen creator tools evolve over the last few years as the creator economy has ramped up in terms of new entrants into the market?

Cynthia Ruff

I’m incredibly jealous of anyone who wants to start a content creation channel now because there’s such an amazing suite of tools at your disposal. It’s just great. If you have the energy, you can find anything, and get it done within a weekend. I mean, obviously, there are all these bio tools that are so great and so dynamic. I love beacons.ai. I think they’re probably one of the best if you’re not going to build your own links page. They help you take ownership of your audience and put your audience from your social platforms into like nice buckets so that you know how you can monetize them in the future. I think that another really great advantage of creators now is that they can start filtering and categorizing their audience earlier on. Whereas us who built a newsletter, like six years ago, tags were a new thing, and I’m like, great. How many of these people are actually interested in my content versus how many people just signed up because they wanted a free download? The organization is much better for creators now as well. The ability to reach out to brands because the content creator thing is so much more mainstream, everyone has paid content creators on their marketing budget now. They can go out and pitch something and the brand might say, “Not right now but in Q3, we’ll have more budget to do this. We’ll reach back out then.” It’s just so much easier to do business as a content creator now. There’s even a credit card that has no interest if you want to put your creative stuff on this credit card to help you build your portfolio for the content which is wild because six years ago, it was American Express that you use. There are all these really great tools where you can build your creator business for next to nothing and fund your next creative endeavor with so many amazing tools to turn your audience into a community that is valuable.

William Leonard

That’s why I think this industry is so fascinating because of the low barrier to entry. I mean, all you really need is a cell phone and maybe a camera that your parents may have gifted you a couple of years ago, you can be a content creator just like that.

Cynthia Ruff

I mean, podcast software is basically free to record now. You don’t have to pay anything to upload. There is no fee barrier. You were absolutely right.

William Leonard

That’s awesome. I know you went to Kennesaw State and then you also went to Georgia Tech to get your MBA. When you think about a content creation startup, you really think about New York and you think about LA, but you’re here in Atlanta. Why is that? What do you see in Atlanta that could really support and underpin the growth of the content creator economy here?

Cynthia Ruff

Well, Atlanta has always been my home. I moved here. I lived just north of San Francisco when I was a baby. I moved here when I was three so this is absolutely my home. I think a lot of people forget especially now with the pandemic, that everything is digital and a flight out of Atlanta is directed to basically anywhere. We have an amazing airport. I also just think Atlanta gets overlooked a lot for all the things that we have to offer here. The black creators here in Atlanta are some of the most powerful in the entire country. We have a lot of macro creators who live here. There are a lot of creative resources that have offices, not only in LA but New York. I think we have an advantage because this isn’t a super oversaturated creator marketplace where LA, there’s probably just people like handing out business cards left and right to come to join their agency, come join their creator, this blah, blah, blah. Whereas in Atlanta, I can have the touch points with the New York HQ, and agencies that have a location here in Atlanta, and I have less competition to get into the market and make those introductions because there are not that many people who are trying to meet with them here. I see this as a leg up and I can take a three-hour flight to go anywhere else I want to.

William Leonard

I think the accessibility that the city of Atlanta has is second to none when like you said direct flight to think about the demographic of individuals, millennials, Gen Z, and people that are here. And then also you think about some of the entertainment companies that are here, you’ve got Turner Broadcasting. They call Atlanta Hollywood of the South now. You’ve got all this positive momentum that is helping, maybe just maybe, solidify Atlanta as one of the content creator hubs, as this industry continues to grow. I really love that perspective, Cynthia, and this has been a really fun conversation about the creator economy. I think a lot of our audience probably knows what it is but now they have a more in-depth understanding after your deep dives here. I’m very appreciative of you joining me today and look forward to seeing you continue to build here in the city of Atlanta.

Cynthia Ruff

Thank you so much for having me. Always a blast to chat about creators and compensation. Anytime anyone wants to chat about it, hit me up.

William Leonard

What’s the best way for some of our listeners to get in touch with you?

Cynthia Ruff

For any emails or any requests, you can find us at hey@hastagpayme.com. You can find us on social media. It’s Hashtag Pay Me, all spelled out. And then, of course, we’re on LinkedIn. Our website is www.hashtagpayme.com.

William Leonard

Sweet. I love it. Cynthia, thank you again for joining me and talk soon.

Cynthia Ruff

Sounds good. Thanks so much. Have a good one.

Lisa Calhoun

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