At the height of the pandemic, Sendjoy became Southeast Asia's largest paid fan engagement platform, reaching over 40 million followers. As we grew Sendjoy, it became clear to us that Sendjoy was more creativity and community than celebrity. With Sendjoy, independent creators with a few thousand followers earned up to 16x the country's average monthly income. However, our runway ended before we fully pivoted to serve independent creators and their fan communities. After 3 and a half years in operation, we are saying goodbye to Sendjoy as of November 2023.
📖 Our Story
I'm LC, Co-founder / CEO of Sendjoy. If you're reading this, you have discovered a dream of mine that I had the privilege of bringing to life with a crazy, ambitious team. The following is an account of how it all started and ended. At the very end, there will be lessons learnt that we'd like to share with those who want to build for the emerging middle-class of the creator economy i.e. independent creators.
😖 Born out of Desperation
Back in 2020, I ran an employer branding agency that helped companies transform career pages and job descriptions into videos that young talents could vibe with. We were popular with tech startups. But when news of a brewing epidemic from Wuhan hit the shores of Singapore, panic among business owners quickly ensued. We were losing relevance by the minute. In the wake of mandatory social distancing, leaders rushed out business continuity plans to weather the upcoming storm of uncertainty. Needless to say, employer branding was the last thing on their minds. On top of that, all forms of in-person media production were understandably halted. We had to rethink what we could do as a team.
Malaysia, where I was born and raised, instituted a nation-wide travel ban. Singapore, where I worked, soon followed suit. I knew I wouldn't be celebrating Mother's Day with my family in Kuala Lumpur. Then and there, I had this idea of getting my mom's favourite Singaporean TV star to record a personalised video message for her. I thought it was a fun thing to do in these rather demoralising times. I didn't know the actress, so I DM'd her on Instagram. Long story short, the whole process was an administrative nightmare. I was shuttled between agents and managers, who clearly didn't know how to entertain my request professionally. Everyone was unsure about availability, pricing, service parameters...
Before starting our agency, my cofounder and I had been working in Asia's media and entertainment industry. So we knew the imminent lockdowns and movement restrictions would force celebrities, agents and managers to reimagine safe ways to engage with fans. At scale. Remotely. Personalised video messages would be the medium through which we ushered in a new age of fan engagement.
Thus, Sendjoy was born.
🌠 From One Star to Another
Our motto 'From one star to another' encapsulated our hope to bring closer celebrities and fans everywhere.
On the one hand, the celebrity landscape was changing right before our eyes. Platforms like TikTok and Clubhouse gave rise to 'creator' celebrities that built fast-growing fandoms around digital content. On the other hand, fans were demonstrating a higher willingness to pay for online experiences.
One thing that became clear to us early on was the need to align a celebrity's personalised video messages with the reason of their celebrityhood. In other words, if an artist gained celebrity status for her illustrations, her fans would most likely want to get a personalised caricature video from her. Armed with this insight, we launched product features that enabled our celebrities, which we affectionately called Sendjoyers, to provide multiple Sendjoy services that played to their strengths. An emphasis on on fun became Sendjoy's core identity. Our customers could get creative by tapping into our Sendjoyers' creative talents.
Moreover, we kept Sendjoy's business model direct and transparent. Sendjoyers priced their own Sendjoy services. For every successful booking, we received a 25% platform fee. We did away with opaque pricing practices that bred mistrust between celebrities and fans.
As a result, fans resonated more and more with Sendjoy, Sendjoy was where famous people did fun things for fans. Collectively, we offered personalised video messages that ranged from birthday shoutouts to tarot readings. One customer said to us: "Sendjoy is like Fiverr, but with celebrities." Professional yet fun. Trustworthy and transparent. We were proud of such a characterisation. Within 6 months of launching, Sendjoy became Singapore's largest paid fan engagement platform. Our Sendjoyers had a combined social media following of 40 million. We were on track to become Southeast Asia's biggest marketplace of our kind.
However, growth stalled in our home market of Singapore as we finished raising a fresh round of capital from the likes of Quest Ventures. We formulated a new strategy - get East Asian celebrities to meet the demand of Southeast Asian fans.
🛬 Crash Landing in Korea
In 2021, we were gearing up for Sendjoy's entry into Taiwan, with help from AppWorks. Taiwanese celebrities had mileage across Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, where we were market leaders.
Yet, the world wasn't done grappling with the virus. When the Delta variant came on the scene in May, the Taiwanese government stopped inbound travelling indefinitely. Other East Asian destinations like Mainland China, Hong Kong and Japan were still shut off. We needed to anchor ourselves physically in another country that could 'broadcast' Sendjoy regionally.
We identified Korea as our next stop. With Sendjoy, Korean celebrities could easily engage with fans all over Southeast Asia and beyond. With Korean celebrities, Sendjoy would be introduced to the world.
🌊 Turning of the Tide
Our entry into Korea came with every form of support possible. We were selected for the government-sponsored K-Startup Grand Challenge. Industry contacts put us in touch with K-drama and K-pop celebrity managers. We had a Korean-speaking team. We were dead set on making our strategy work.
At the same time, the world around us was changing once again. Merely a few months after we were denied entry to Taiwan, international flights resumed and IRL activities returned in droves. Conversations with celebrity managers dragged on longer before we got to a yes. Even when we did, there were many strings attached. Availability wasn't guaranteed. Pricing was unfriendly. Everyone was too busy travelling and gathering.
By the end of 2021, we saw a sharp decline in the number of celebrities who promoted their Sendjoy services on social media. They still accepted Sendjoy bookings as they came, but they reserved shoutouts for brand deals. Not only that, link-in-bio traffic fell drastically. It was difficult to stomach, but the fact was that celebrities didn't make as much money on Sendjoy as they would with sponsorships.
The writing was on the wall. Like our employer branding agency from 2 years prior, Sendjoy was losing relevance by the minute in a rapidly recovering world.
But all hope was not lost.
📖 True Meaning of Creator Economy
In venture capital parlance, Sendjoy fit squarely in the space known as the CREATOR ECONOMY.
According to Stephany Kirkpatrick from Orum, "The creator economy is a growing field of people who make money by leveraging their creative talents, typically using digital platforms to connect with their audiences."
We started Sendjoy knowing it would be a new way for celebrities to monetise fan engagement in the age of social distancing. The rise of platforms like TikTok supercharged our growth. While many considered someone's following to be the most important marker of their celebrityhood, we had a team of community managers who interviewed those 'applying' to be Sendjoyers. Looking back now, we unknowingly transformed our celebrities into creators, encouraging them to leverage their creative talents when designing and promoting their Sendjoy services.
Those who made money on Sendjoy were celebrities who did so, regardless of their numbers of followers.
However, the real surprise came to us when we discovered that an Indonesian tarot reader earned $1,000 in one week, surpassing the average Indonesian's monthly income of $250. The catch? She only had 2,000 followers. While 'traditional' celebrities could access brand deals, 'creator' celebrities used Sendjoy as a monetisation tool for direct-to-fan services.
Most creators we spoke to assumed that their customers would be a fraction of their followers 👇
However, Sendjoy believed that the creator economy was all about transforming a creator's social capital into financial capital. In our understanding, a creator's initial following was merely seed capital, to start building a customer base that would transcend their followers and potentially reach many customers that weren’t regular followers or fans 👇
With this framework, we shifted our focus to helping independent creators make money doing what they loved. At Sendjoy, creativity, sincerity and consistency mattered more than fame.
While this new vision reenergised us, we couldn't muster enough resources to build the team we needed, after all.
⌛ The Beginning of the End
In early 2022, we signed a term sheet for a new round of funding. The founders of Guitar Hero and Orbit Baby joined us from Silicon Valley and Taipei. They brought along 886 Studios partners who founded YouTube, Twitch and even HotorNot. Things were looking up again.
We built a team of scouts who combed through Instagram and TikTok. We approached less prominent creators whose works showed a great deal of customisability and fan engagement. We asked them to recommend creator friends who could use a platform like ours. Our Gross Merchandise Value (GMV), i.e. total value of bookings made, climbed back up to previous levels. Our margins improved because we spent less on marketing. In fact, we planned to attach more community managers to our Sendjoyers. We encouraged them to update and promote their Sendjoy services seasonally.
However, the broader market kept getting worse for tech-related ventures as interest rates kept going up. Cameo, a US startup that venture capitalists often benchmarked us to, announced two rounds of layoffs. Even though we were growing, we couldn't allay the general fear that creator economy startups were over-funded. In response, we cut spending, scaled back, and double-downed on profitable verticals and markets like tarot readers in Indonesia.¹
Investment in creator economy startups has also dropped, with only $180 million invested in Q4 2022 in the US, compared to the ~$500 million invested in the space in each quarter since Q1 2021.Ollie Forsyth, Antler
By 2023, it became clear that our unit economics could only work under very specific circumstances. While we gained significant traction among tarot readers and customers in Jakarta, the costs of operations would prove to be prohibitive. A couple of founder friends introduced me to Indonesian VCs, hoping that I could extend the runway and build a team. Sadly, almost all of them had placed a bet on a similar creator economy startup in the past 3 years, and were hesitant to take the leap again on a new team. That, or they were only comfortable investing in AI creator economy startups at the moment.
As I write these words, I remember the long breath I took after I told our shareholders we wouldn't be able to continue this journey.
I remember the first ever Sendjoy booking that gave us this beautiful song.
"Scars will heal." Indeed, many years from now, I'm sure the team will look back on our time at Sendjoy and be proud of what we built. But right now, the disappointment is real. So is the urge to learn as much as we can from this experience.
💞 Joy to the World
At Sendjoy, we saw recipients tear up the moment they heard their names uttered by the face on the screen. Our Sendjoyers voiced out messages that would have stayed deep inside one's heart otherwise. We saw recipients who became customers themselves, booking a Sendjoy for a friend who needed a pick-me-up. Chain Sendjoys, if you will.
Creativity flowed through from Sendjoyers to our customers and their recipients. Songs were written. Memories were painted. People's lives were read. Whenever we received reaction videos and reviews, a team member would play or read them out loud. We'd share them with the Sendjoyers as well. Sending joy brought joy back to everyone.
More importantly, we helped Sendjoyers earn a living by making people laugh, cry, feel special and more with their creative talents. We empowered those who turned Sendjoy into a profession, regardless of their celebrityhood.
📝 To-Do-More List
They say you can only connect the dots looking backwards. When we did, we saw 2 lines that needed strengthening:
🙋🏻 Lead More
We created Sendjoy when uncertainty swept through the media and entertainment industry. Celebrities lost gigs overnight while fans retreated to the safety of their homes.
We were building a marketplace startup. We overcame the chicken-and-egg problem by localising our atomic networks. Bookings rolled in. Celebrities made money. Fans submitted reviews. We invited more celebrities, especially those who had been previously beyond our reach. Sendjoy was growing. Before we knew it, celebrity managers and agents came knocking on our door. It felt great.
But we never stepped up into the leadership role we should have played.
In my mind, I led the team that built the product that was Sendjoy. I was proud of us for making something innovative and fun during gloomy times. "We give people a tool," I argued. "As long as there are bookings, it means the tool is working," I reasoned.
But I was wrong - Sendjoy was so much more than the tool we put in our users' hands.
Sendjoy was a new job. Sendjoyers also participated in our culture as much as our team members. While metrics like numbers of bookings and Sendjoyers indicated a working tool, we were investing less in culture than I'd like to admit. Culture spread through the community that we built, and we weren't building enough of that. Had we been more intentional about it, knowledge of what worked for one Sendjoyer could have travelled faster and wider across our community. “As a creator, how do I design and promote Sendjoy services? How do I generate bookings more frequently? How do I improve customer satisfaction?" Answering such questions could have benefited every Sendjoyer new to the platform.
Real leaders are forged in crisis. The industry was in turmoil. We were showing celebrities an unprecedented way of monetising appearances and performances. We shouldn't have assumed that they'd just know how to do the job of a Sendjoyer. More than a product, we were building a community. We needed to take the lead with our Sendjoyers. Hear them out. Check in on them. Grow them, and then grow with them.
🚪 Leave More
When life returned to (relative) normalcy in late 2021, Sendjoy's raison d'être came into question. Our Sendjoyers resumed in-person appearances and performances. Fans flooded theaters and concert halls. Families and friends reunited. A jubilant me went back to Malaysia for the first time in almost 2 years.
But we were also confronted with an uneasy outlook for Sendjoy. Would Sendjoy become an afterthought, just like COVID-19?
When we started Sendjoy at the height of the pandemic, we knew that one day Sendjoy would outgrow the conditions it was 'born' into. We chose to work closely with celebrities because they had immediate appeal, and they could use Sendjoy when other types of monetisable fan engagement weren't possible. But throughout 2021, as the world gradually opened up, we did notice an increased negative correlation between a Sendjoyer's number of followers and their frequency of call-to-action shoutouts. In other words, the fewer followers one had, the more they'd promote their Sendjoy services on social media.
With the right Sendjoy services, independent creators on Sendjoy generated more revenue per follower.
Furthermore, when a follower booked an independent creator's Sendjoy for someone else, they did it to introduce their recipient to the Sendjoyer. In other words, follower-cum-customers of independent creators acted more like a fan community. It was a different consumer behaviour from what we observed among customers who booked celebrities.
We saw hints that Sendjoy could be the primary way independent creators earned meaningful via personalised direct-to-fan services. We pictured an evolved version of Sendjoy, filled with creators, whether they were celebrity or not, making a living sending joy. Despite our fascination and excitement, we were too entrenched in our identity as a "celebrity" platform to fully explore the new creator-centric product roadmap that the findings above suggested. We didn't give independent creators enough limelight and support. We didn't leave behind Sendjoy 1.0 soon enough to make way for Sendjoy 2.0.
📜 Additional Insights for Aspiring Middle-Class Creators
The world keeps changing, but it's clear that the creator economy isn't going anywhere. With every passing second, creators upload more and more content onto the Internet, which will be seen and shared by strangers who are now, more so than ever, capable of directly paying and supporting such creators.
While the biggest creators have achieved enormous success, the middle-class of the creator economy, i.e. independent creators, is slow to take shape. However, Sendjoy has proven what works for direct monetisation. I want to share the following tips with independent creators and those who are building products for them. These are all best practices we have gleaned from Sendjoy:
- Fit your community: A creator must first provide services and goods that fit within the expectations of their community of fans. If you build a community around your illustrations, don't sell songs. What set Sendjoy apart from other paid fan engagement platforms was our belief that fit beat following. How many people follow you doesn't matter as much as how you want to engage them and provide value to them;
- Price accordingly: A creator mustn't give in on pricing. When you price too low fearing you wouldn't get anything, you'll end up burning out. When you price too high fearing that you'd get too many bookings, you'll end alienating your community. Instead, the best way is to imagine the amounts your average community member will pay, and design your goods and services accordingly;
- Call to action: Creators shouldn't hesitate to call to action. Needless to say, creators that redirect link-in-bio traffic or shout out about what they do on Sendjoy enjoy more bookings. The reservations may be that creators don't want to seem or sound too salesy, but the tips below will help you;
- Show your process: A creator is respected and admired for the work they produce, so show your community what you're up to. How do you do it? Where? When? How do you feel when you're doing it? How do you transform one thing to another? Invite others into your process. Instead of telling your community to buy you service, show them what they are buying into;
- Go with the seasons: A creator should think of seasonal goods and services to increase community engagement. It could be a well-known holiday like Christmas, or something made up but fun, like 3.3 or 5.5. Introduce excitement and time-exclusivity. Celebrate with your community;
- Share every "thank-you": A creator should 'close the loop' by showing their appreciation for bookings or purchases their community has made. This fosters a sense of community
Sendjoy has shown us that creativity does make this big, big world smaller. Warmer. Less lonely. Happier.
There may not be a Sendjoy 2.0, but the lessons that we learned, and the tears and laughter that we witnessed, will be forever etched in our hearts. Our mission of supporting the long tail of creators will live on in the work that we pursue next. Generative AI is upon us. New creator classes will emerge. New fan communities will form. New demands will be made and met. We will be lead the charge. We will leave the shackles of the past behind us, and reimagine a creator economy that adequately rewards creativity and community.
I want to thank all our customers and Sendjoyers for taking a chance on us. Your love and dedication may not have warmed up the entire world, but it certainly warmed up ours. I'm so proud of Sendjoy team members past and present who took this leap and ran along us. Some have even gone on to found startups (Shoutout to Moonbeam Co. and GetSolar!) I appreciate every investor who supported us in any amount, even when the market was fast cooling.
Finally, speaking of creativity and community, I want to leave you with a Mother's Day video that a Sendjoyer made with the help of another Sendjoyer. Until next time. Cheers.