Michael Le turned dance videos and millions of followers into an $8 million seed round.
The Los Angeles-based creator has been cultivating his online audience since 2015, but it took TikTok for him to really break through. His TikToks now have over 10 billion views as fans tune in to watch him dance in public, play with his siblings and participate in challenges.
His large following and business efforts got him spots in Teen Vogue and Vanity Fair spreads on rising influencers, and on Forbes’ Top Creators of 2022 list, where he joined the likes of Addison Rae and the D’Amelio sisters.
“I think a creator is building a brand, and that brand is essentially just a business,” he said. “A lot of people don't know how to expand their business to be able to create more content.”
But it’s undeniable that his TikTok presence has launched him into the spotlight. In 2020, Forbes named him the 6th highest paid TikToker. Bringing in $1.2 million that year, he told Forbes that 60% of his income comes from brand deals. The rest comes from label promos and outside sources. That number increased to $5.5 million in 2021. Le boasts deals with brands ranging from Prada to Hugo Boss to Disney. Choreographing dances to songs like “Came to Do” has led to collaborations with big names like singer/dancer Jason Derulo and basketball player Crissa Jackson.
Prior to that, Le was a dance instructor in his hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida and a popular YouTube channel, Just Maiko. That was always his end goal.
In 2015, he began posting videos on Muical.ly before it was bought by TikTok. When he accepted his first brand deal in 2016, he said there was no standard for those kinds of relationships. He said he had to figure out how to navigate brand deals and sponsorships, relying on his own entrepreneurial mindset to negotiate deals.
“It was honestly a new territory, so I felt like no one really knew what the standard was at the time,” Le said.
These days, Le said brands take social media and influencer marketing more seriously. But influencers who quickly make it big often struggle to understand the financial component of their careers. From navigating taxes to managing money, Le said many new creators don’t anticipate how much work goes into becoming a full-time creator. Some struggle with growing their own creative team, such as hiring editors and managers, which can help take content to the next level.
“The influencer space is just going to get harder over time,” he said. “I think the ones that are able to scale and continuously evolve and adapt to the markets are the ones that are going to be able to really reap the benefits.”
Building a Personal Brand in a Web3 World
To that end, Le decided to dream bigger: taking an entrepreneurial approach to the influencer lifestyle, Le launched the Web3 gaming platform Joystick with tech entrepreneur Robin DeFay in June after raising his seed round. The duo is in the process of raising another $110 million in Series A funding.
Through the platform, Joystick lends assets like weapons, land and characters from popular games to users as NFTs. Users can then sells items like NFT skins made from that land’s resources and sell them for profit.
Le sees Web3 as the future of content ownership: Joystick allows players to earn all of the revenue they generate in exchange for a small monthly fee to the platform, a gaming model that combines the traditional “pay-to-play” with what Le is calling “play-to-earn.”
“The fact that a lot of people didn't understand [Web3], or catch on to it, just gave me an opportunity to realize that there was untapped potential for benefits and being able to lead the next generation of the internet,” Le said.
Currency on Joystick is called JOY tokens, which can be bought on the Ethereum network; holders will have access to special assets, reward distribution, limited edition merch and educational material that comes in the form of cameos from leading industry influencers.
Catherine Tucker, who co-founded the MIT Cryptoeconomics Lab, said the idea of decentralized trust draws in influencers, as it offers a space for them to collaborate with their community.
Still, Web3 remains a thorny space for creators, she said. Issues surrounding ownership are potential drawbacks for creators.
“I think that it is not quite clear what standard will prevail and also that there is very little at the moment to guarantee ownership outside of the Web3 universe,” she said. “For example, I can still take a photo of my screen and there is nothing a content creator can do.”
JR Lanis, the vice chair at Polsinelli’s Securities & Corporate Finance Practice, said some crypto companies are started by people who are technologically sophisticated but lack business sense.
“Influencers may not be aware of the rules, so they need to be careful about how they influence,” Lanis said.
Claiming a lack of knowledge won’t absolve you from potential SEC litigation over improper security promotions, as many celebrities found out over the summer when they were issued warnings by the Truth in Advertising, a watchdog group. The organization found at least 17 celebrities—including Paris Hilton, Reese Witherspoon, Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Fallon—had all failed to disclose their personal financial stakes in the digital assets they were shilling.
Lanis said it’s important that influencers understand what they’re promoting and how they go about it.
“Once you understand the basic framework of the rules for promoting securities or trying to avoid promoting securities, and then focusing on the underlying technology of the coin as opposed to the coin as a medium of value, then I think influencers can probably be okay,” Lanis said. “It's just that initial learning curve, understanding what you can and can't say.”
Le’s interest in NFTs was piqued by GaryVee, an entrepreneur and online influencer whose content guides people through the crypto world. With Joystick, Le said he wants to educate people about how to navigate Web3 and NFTs. It’s important that his audience understands the space even as it continues to evolve, he said.
Le sees Joystick as just one component of his brand—one he hopes can continue to expand. Social media provided the foundation for where he is now. After signing with WME earlier this year and snagging a cameo role in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” he said his platform has enabled him to get beyond being seen as just a social media star.
“I personally think that I'm building an empire,” Le said. “I'm really trying to just take my time, brick by brick, make sure that every video I make is really good and that I'm proud of it.
Each new component—from family-friendly vlogs to acting gigs to Web3 education—helps ensure his longevity as a creator, he said.
“I’m just not really stressing it,” Le said. “Because it's really just a long game.”
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