Cameo, the startup that lets you book celebrities to send your friends and family personalized video shoutouts, started with Seattle Seahawks player Cassius Marsh.
Cameo co-founder Steven Galanis was leaving his grandmother’s funeral when his friend (and now co-founder) Martin Blencowe showed him a video from Marsh to another friend who had just had his first son. From there, the idea was born.
“When people are in the NFL, they’re all trying to get endorsement deals. But only one percent of players will get those deals. People have bigger social followings than ever before, so if you played football at USC, Notre Dame, Texas or Alabama, you might have hundreds of thousands or millions of followers from college. Then if you get onto the Seattle Seahawks or the San Francisco 49ers, and you’re the 17th best player on the team, no brands are paying for you to make money on your social," said Galanis.
Enter: Cameo. Galanis, along with Blencowe and their third co-founder Devon Townsend, originally set out to build the new “autograph from professional athletes,” betting on the rise of influencers on social media and selfies upon every celebrity sighting. The team sold their first Cameo in February 2017, just after Galanis left his full-time job in sales at LinkedIn.
Today, the company has 18,000 celebrities in its arsenal —from Caitlyn Jenner to Charlie Sheen to Snoop Dogg — and has delivered more than 300,000 video requests. The startup has also raised more than $65 million in venture backing. Yesterday, Cameo announced that Stefan Heinrich Henriquez, the former head of marketing for TikTok, is joining the team as CMO.
I recently spoke with Galanis about Cameo’s story, where we covered how the team first won over “talent" (celebrities), their secret sauce to viral marketing and their crazy launch story that was *almost* a failure.
On building Cameo’s MVP: The MVP version of Cameo was basically a landing page, and there was only one talent when we started. It was Cassius Marsh. Almost anybody could have launched with more people than we did, and nobody would’ve launched a business around Cassius Marsh. Ultimately, the first version of Cameo was called Powermove.io, and we knew that we were going to change the name at some point. The original site was almost like a Google Form; we asked customers who the video was for, their name, their email address and what they wanted it to say. On the backend, we would email the talent and ask them to record the message on their phone and email it back to us.
On initial user testing: We started messing around with Facebook Messenger Chatbots. We had done over 10,000 of these videos before we created our own app because we really wanted to limit the friction for people to join. If talent wanted to just do this via Facebook Messenger at the beginning, it made it so easy for them to do. The value prop was something on your phone can start making you money. So we did 10,000 videos before we felt we nailed what people wanted, and then we built a product around that and launched our customer app in October 2017.
On their crazy launch story: We always believed that our supply and our marketplace could beget its own demand. In February 2017, we had Cassius Marsh post that first video and say, “For $20 I’ll make you your own video.” He ended up tweeting it out, we had the Google Analytics set up and nobody came to the site. People actually started s— talking Cassius on Twitter. And then all of the sudden this dot pops up in Washington [in Google Analytics] and then it goes away and we were so dejected. The person was there for three minutes. Then a dad messaged us on Twitter and told us how Cassius Marsh is his daughter’s favorite player in the world and that her birthday was the following week. He asked if we could get Cassius to make one of the videos for her, because our payment processor wasn’t working. So that showed us we had deep product-market fit.
But we also wanted to build a product where the talent could make videos repeatedly and it wouldn’t just be a one-off thing. When we sent the video to the dad, he ended up recording his daughter’s reaction and she started crying. And now we’re famous for those reaction videos.
The secret sauce for getting talent to join Cameo: We launched with one person and the first Cameo ever resulted in a reaction video. Marketplaces are always tough because it’s the chicken and the egg — how do we get fans to come if we don’t have the people they want and how do we get the talent to come if the fans aren’t here? The second we had that first reaction video, it really put the wheels in motion for acquiring more and more talent and customers.
In the summer of 2017, we hired 15 college interns and had them DM people on Instagram and Twitter all day to get talent to come on the platform. And that ended up being the secret sauce. We have 120 employees now, and probably 70-80 of them are dealing with talent. Most talent is still being sourced through Instagram or Twitter DM. It was huge because it enabled us to not go through agents or managers. Anyone in the world can DM anyone in the world. You could DM Justin Bieber and he may read it.
On turning celebrities into salespeople: Every talent is under the exact same deal: a 75/25 revenue split. We don’t give commissions to agents so there’s no value-add they can have. We’ve also created a talent-to-talent referral system, so if I refer you to Cameo and we’re both famous, I would make five percent of your bookings per year (out of Cameo’s cut), so you still make 75 percent. Essentially we’ve turned our 18,000 talent into our outside sales team.
On celebrity pricing on Cameo: We let the talent price themselves. Ultimately, I didn’t want a talent to not do a video because they didn’t feel like it was worth their time. But there was a lot of educating that I did to help them understand what their time was worth. Every time, you do one, it’s an exponential increase in awareness for your brand. The value of Cameo to talent is that people are paying them to promote their content. It’s kind of like the value of a rockstar — you go to their concert and buy their t-shirt, so you become a living, breathing billboard.
On their marketing playbook: Our secret sauce has been that we have an unlimited amount of free influencer marketing. Because it’s a revenue share, the talent is incentivized to promote and turn their fans into our customers for free. We also have billboards around LA and Chicago. We have one up in LA right now that says “We’re that internet thing that your mom will know about next year.” Recently, our CTO chartered a plane and flew it over Facebook’s HQ on Friday at rush hour. It said “Tell Mark you quit. Cameo.com/jobs.” We love doing splashy things like that.
On what’s next: The biggest fear is that the business can go so viral so quickly, so we’re making deep investments in our design, product and engineering team, as well as the team that deals with the talent directly. Team building is the single most top of mind thing.
We raised our Series A and Series B really quickly after each other. We were good on cash and not raising, but then Cameo really entered the Zeitgeist. Ellen Degeneres and Howard Stern started talking about it. Ultimately, the reason I decided to raise money is to expand internationally. Thirty percent of our business is coming from abroad already without us really doing much there. Now we’re going to make some strategic bets in key markets and make sure there’s not a Cameo in India, or in Korea, or in Latin America that’s not ours. Our talent is global and has fans all over the world, so we can scale internationally quicker than other businesses.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.