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5.9.21   5:04 PM

If you’ve seen the new tipping feature on Twitter, or something similar pop up on Clubhouse, you might be wondering: Who actually pays money for social media content? And can anyone really make a living this way?

The answers are “more people than you probably realize,” and “yes.” One of the driving forces behind making those things happen is Dmitry Shapiro.

Shapiro, a former Google product manager and chief technology officer for MySpace, founded Koji in 2019 as a package of tools that allow non-coders to easily connect a variety of customized features to their social media profiles — such as tip jars. With Koji, influencers on TikTok, LinkedIn, Clubhouse and other platforms have been able to gently solicit tips by simply adding a link to their bios. Some are even drawing a comfortable income doing that.

The concept is about allowing people to use money to express “kindness” and appreciation for content creators, said Shapiro. He became intrigued by that idea during one of his trips to Burning Man, a festival where attendees erect a temporary utopian community in the desert to celebrate giving and free expression.

His vision has attracted some impressive backing. Investors include former Disney CEO and chairman Michael Eisner, head of Google News Richard Gingras, Mark Pincus, the founder of Zynga, and Galaxy Interactive’s EOS VC fund. Along with tip jars, Koji also allows social media users to create games and tools, among other add-ons. Monetization features have become especially in vogue as of late.

“Indeed, there are people that are making not yet millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there are people making thousands of dollars a week using Koji on their LinkedIn bio,” he told us. But he added: “It’s not about the money. It’s about creating digital interfaces for humans to interact with each other…there’s a tremendous amount of innovation that can happen in giving us new ways to connect.”

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

  • What is Koji, and how people use it to make money


    Business of Business: So Dimitri, can you talk about your past experience and how it led you to to founding Koji?

    Dmitry Shapiro: Yeah, so in 1984, I went to the movie theater with my dad, I was 14 years old. And we saw the movie "War Games" with Matthew Broderick, and I left that movie theater saying, "Oh, my God, I need a computer." And, and so I got into computers right after that movie. And even though my degrees in electrical engineering, I've never done a day of that. I've always done software.

    So I worked on sort of a bunch of different things in the past, I built Fujitsu's web team from [1995 to 1999]. And then I, I found that a company called Akonix which was a cybersecurity company, raised $34 million for that, and built that up over five years, ended up selling. And then I founded another company called Veoh Networks, which was one of the major competitors to YouTube.  [Then I became] CTO of MySpace Music.
    And then I went to Google and spent four and a quarter years at Google, working on social products and some other products and then left in 2016, to co-found what's now known as Koji. And, you know, we're just kind of out of out of a long beta coming out and taking this thing to market and really excited about what we've built and, and are about to unleash on on folks.

    Can you explain a little bit about what Koji is? It looks like it helps people build stuff. Is that a fair description? 

    That's a that's a great description. It's actually a perfect description. That's somewhat ambiguous, though. It's right. But more specifically, it's focused on this thing that today, we live in a world where we love social media, we spend the vast majority of our time inside of just a few apps on our social media apps on and, and so the average user now uses multiple networks. And what Koji does is write something called the Link in Bio, think of it as like a personal homepage that lives on on the internet. And from that personal homepage, you can customize a put links to all of your other services that you use. And from those services link back to the global sort of canonical personal homepage of yours. 

    Koji not only provides that, but also provides an app store of what we call add ons. Think of it as like modules that you can add to your profile. There's hundreds of them already. So there'll be thousands of them, because they're created by both our developers and independent developers. It's like an app store for these little modules. And they're there to sort of supercharge your profile with all kinds of features.

    "You can think of the dollar amount as sort of being like a volume knob for the message."

    But one of the most popular ones, people are adding a tip jar. And so people visiting your Link in Bio, can just express themselves and say "thank you." It allows you to put a dollar amoung in a message. And the most important part of that, of course, is the message you can think of the dollar amount as sort of being like a volume knob for the message. And so it's amazing when you allow people to do that.

    [People say] "before you had this capability, I had no way of telling you how valuable your work has been to me, changed my life perhaps." That little thing that might seem like a tip jar is so much more than that. It's a new form of digital interaction.

    Then there are other forms that allow you to you know, sell premium images or videos kind of like OnlyFans, or fulfill custom video requests...These are just modules that live on my profile and everybody's profile and people showing up there just have all those features available to them. Nothing to install, no new networks to join. No need for me as a creator to tell my fans right now, "Hey, I know you like my content on Instagram, but because I want to offer some premium images or videos, I now have to ask you to go download another app, create an account, put in your credit card, follow me there, because that's where I'm going to be posting some other stuff." That's crazy. This says You don't need to do any of that. Engage with your fans in brand new ways...I hope that made some sense.

    I think so. So it's kind of like sort of an interface. Or maybe. you can just add stuff or maybe a button or something like that. And then you don't have to tell people about it. 

    Yeah, another way of looking at it this: So apps have changed our lives, right? We get the launcher, the home screen, right and onto it, we choose from the App Store, what apps we want to add to our own interface facing us. You can think of Koji is doing the same thing. But facing outwards, where your Link in Bio your personal homepage is like a launcher onto which you put various apps, these modules, not for you to use, but for other people to use to engage with you. And those might be for just messaging, or they might be transactional, or they might be multimedia, meaning there's already hundreds of them.

    You can just go to our website, and you can see all these modules are there new ones being added weekly. Soon, there'll be multiple ones added per day. And we've got over a dozen in a queue that are waiting for release because we don't have time to to release them yet. So cool. Lots of innovation on what you can do in your Link in Bio, across all the networks, including make money. And indeed there are people that are making you know, not yet millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there are people making thousands of dollars a week using Koji on their LinkedIn bio.

  • What motivates people to "tip" others on social media


    Tell me where people are using this. You said LinkedIn. I know Clubhouse has a tip jar.

    Because it's just the link, people use it in every network. Certainly every social network. People [also] use it in their signature in their email, right? They'll sign it and they'll be like, "here's a link to my global homepage. That's where you can itneract with me. That's canocial to me."  And from there, you can find all the other means. And so, you see these things sort of show up everywhere. You know, I've seen people print little business cards with like little QR codes. You can just scan it. And that's their Link in Bio. Because the're just links, you can give them a QR code, or you can send them via email, or messaging. You can put them in bios for all social networks. And yeah, there's a lot of tip jars, for example, there are a full cluster of them, sort of our fastest-growing cluster. [People are using them to] monetize on TikTok, or using them in their Linkedin. 

    Are there competitors that you have who do similar stuff, or is this your space? 

    We're a new entrant in the space. There's over 50 companies out there that allow you to reate this little sort of customized homepage. We came out of nowhere, sort of took the long route to get here because we built an entire app store and all this other infrastructure. And then we said "what could we use this for that would be valuable?" 

    And it was clear to us as we started talking to people that what they wanted to do with these things is put them in their Link in Bio. So so just in the last month, we have created a Link in Bio offering that sort of jumped into the spray of over 50 companies. But nobody has this app store or these modules. Those are all ours. People sometimes ask to link them to other Link in Bios, and we don't care. That's great. You can take these things, put them on our Link in Bio that's made available free of charge. It's got all kinds of really powerful customization fatures that others don't have yet, and we offer it completely free. Although others charge for it, sort of a monthly basis. But we dont' care if you use ours or not. These things are portable, they can be used on other services. We see sort of entire link tress where every link is a Koji.

    Wow, cool. So maybe this isn't exactly something that's really your expertise, but what is it that motivates people to tip from what you can tell on platforms like Clubhouse, or Linkedin or TikTok? 

    It's a great question. I actually will claim that it is my expertise. But I'll tell you why. When I was 40 years old, I'm 51. Now, when I was 40 years old, I went to Burning Man, my first Burning Man. And while I knew about it for a dozen years prior, it was not my thing. Until I went one year and then realized it is my thing, and have been every year since. My three kids were all planned around Burning Man so that my wife would have a belly at the burn. And so they've all been there since in utero, the kids.

    I learned so many things at Burning Man. But one of sort of, certainly one of the most profound things is what we're talking about here is, why would somebody give somebody a gift? Out of the blue? Somebody potentially they know, or they don't know? Like, why would you give a gift, right? We tend to think of gifts, or we tend to think of sort of relationships between each other as being friendly or transactional. But we feel weird if somebody just gives us something. We say, "Oh, I don't have anything to give you, in return," kind of in this barter scenario, right? We've all been taught in the Western world, certainly, to feel that way that you don't get anything for free. If somebody is trying to give you something that means they want something back.

    So I think we've sort of been tainted in that way and Burning Man opened my eyes to that's not the case at all, we should think of gifting and its real form, kind of like when we give gifts to children at Christmas time. We're not giving gifts to them, expecting them to give us something of equal value. Right? We give gifts to them. Why? Because of obligation. No, because of the reaction we get back, the gratitude. That makes us feel amazing. So much more amazing than the price we paid for getting the gift to light somebody up, to surprise somebody, to be kind.

    "Human nature is what is driving tipping on TikTok and Instagram and everywhere else."

    Human nature is what is driving tipping on TikTok and Instagram and everywhere else. There's no magic, nothing to do with Koji. It is simply a function that when you allow that self expression to happen, when you give people that interface, that's when they can express themselves. If you don't give them an interface, digitally, they have no way of expressing themselves. And at Burning Man, one of the most wonderful things is we all show up. Feeling like children. And so when people come to us and give us gifts, we don't fumble around saying "I don't have anything to give you." What they want is our gratitude. That's what this is about, just human nature.

  • How making money off social media tipping is a little like selling books


    But there are people who are making a living doing this right? You're saying that they're making a living off of basically people just being kind? 

    Kindness is a part of it, of course. But mostly these are fans of theirs, you know, people like if you're a content creator, you presumably aren't just creating it for no reason. You've got some perspective, you're trying to give something back to people. So how I sort of typically see why you produce content is to give something to people. And people see that then some people see that and say, "Oh, my God, this was so valuable. This was so valuable, because of of something that it said or because of the right timing, or whatever it was, but it would have touched me. It impacted me in some way." And sometimes that impact is profound. "But it changed my career. It let me get a better job. It changed my relationship with my spouse, it made me want to have children. That's amazing."

    And so when you create the interface for people to then be able to say, "Hey, is that stuff you do. I need to give something to you. I feel frustrated that I haven't been able to express myself in that way." That is what the seemingly simple tip jars, which I think by the way, it's a whole other thing. I don't think that's the right name for this thing with this new interface is providing to people and we get messages of you know, a creator saying, "Oh my god, these things are making me cry." But the messages that are coming in, "forget the money. I haven't taken any of the money out of my digital wallet. But these messages that are coming in from people saying how my work, what it's meant to them. that's priceless."

    There, right? It's not about the money. It's about creating digital interfaces for humans to interact with each other, we're doing this more and more being sort of behind screens. But it doesn't mean that it has to be quiet. There's a tremendous amount of innovation that can happen in giving us new ways to, you know, connect, especially emotion. And money actually has an interesting ability to do that. Because if somebody just says something nice, they type say, "I love your content," that's wonderful, that's great. But if somebody types the exact same thing and also gives you 100 bucks to go along with it, for some reason, that feels much more real for us to believe that they really mean it. And it's also really important for them, to make sure that we understand what they really mean. You know, how many exclamation points can you put behind a comment? To express to somebody that was awesome? What gift could you choose? nothing that can do what $100 can.

    As you were describing that, my first reaction is, oh, it seems strange that people would, you know, tip someone just for talking on Clubhouse or doing something on Linkedin. But then you think to the the ways people market themselves by writing books, or something like that, and you know, certainly nobody thinks anything of showing support by buying someone's book, is that kind of a similar model, in a sense?

    Yes, especially if you take that in and look at how people sometimes sell books with "pay what you want, which is you can have this book, completely free of charge. And if you want, you can also pay for it." So I suspect you've seen these kinds of models out there. That is that is even more similar. If you're just selling a book. And you say "I need your money to give you this book," that sort of just regular barter. But if I'm saying "no, you can have this book, free of charge, I don't need your email address or anything else. Here's the book. And if you want, you can also give me some money for this book that is similar to this."  And people then saying "no, no, I, I want you to understand, I really appreciate this book. It's valuable to me."  And by the way afterwards, after they've read the book, and probably been impacted by the book positively in some way. It's the ability for them to express themselves after they've read the book. Arguably, that becomes the bigger opportunity for people to really say "I thought that book was worth $10, I was wrong. That books is worth $1,000."

    "There are obviously lots of philosophical questions that come with both. Is that good thing or not?"

    And that's the that's the stuff you start to see happen out. There was actually a wonderful documentary wonderful might be the wrong word for it, because it's a little bit dystopian, a powerful documentary called the People's Republic of Desire. You can find it on Amazon or Netflix. And it talks about streaming personal streaming in China. I think like six years back, it's gotten even more powerful. And a lot of this people tipping people expressing themselves using money. Again, not necessarily as a tip, but more just as a form of "I need you to hear me, I need you, the creator to hear me, I need you the community of other fans of the creator, to hear me." And using money to get past the noise of just everyone typing stuff becomes one way to do it. There are obviously lots of philosophical questions that come with both. Is that a good thing or not?

  • Where the creator economy is headed, and "the future of social"


    I was going to ask you whether the slowdown in Clubhouse downloads may have an effect on Koji but it sounds like you you're it's much bigger than that. So instead, I'm gonna ask you, what is your ultimate vision for this new version of the creator economy? Where do you think this is? Where are we headed?

    Great question. Um, so I spent a bunch of time and what used to be called online communities then became called social networking, right? I've been working in this space for 20 years. And in 1999, I found product at a thing called College Club, an online community of college students, doing similar things to what we do now in social media profiles, messaging, that was in 1998. And, and over the years, there have been sort of lots of experiments that we bought was a society sort of played around. And what is clear now is that things have sort of become steady state, launching brand new networks and growing on is getting harder and harder. Why? Because there isn't a need for more ways for us to be connected with each other.

    Yet another social graph, where I've got a profile on Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook and TikTok, and like, we don't need more of those, the fragmentations, or any sort of events. What is clear now is that we love social media, and it's a generational thing. You know, kids graduating high school, the number one answer of what they want to be for years now has been a YouTuber. And if you take into account blogger, and Instagram, so over 50% of kids surveyed say they want to be social media creators, it's a generation. And so what that generation needs is the next generation of capabilities to engage each other digitally. And those don't belong inside of these fragmented social networks, they belong above them. In the canonical one, you This is the digital view. And that digital you needs ever growing list of capabilities. 

    And so we see incredible innovation on that front, how we, the canonical laws can be engaging with everyone else, with countless new capabilities, monetization, making a living doing it, changing the world, if that's what we're trying to do, having that power in a network that we own, because for example, one of our other most popular Kojis allows you to collect email addresses and phone numbers from your from people come to your profile, meaning your own network. Today, we were all at the mercy of algorithms of ranking algorithms. so will our posts get delivered to our followers, not necessarily, at any moment that can change and sort of radically impact your reach, and your followers ability to hear your message. When you own the network on your own Link in Bio and email addresses and phone numbers. There are no algorithms to interfere. It's just the relationship between you and everyone that cares to have a relationship with you. unbiased buying enough. You still participate in these other videos. But the most important is is the you know. And so it becomes basically sort of decentralized social networking, I think, where people have talked about before, but without all these sort of weird peer to peer stuff and all that stuff that used to come up. It's it's the future social. I'm certain of that. 

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