In five years, online membership service Patreon has attracted two million patrons supporting 100,000 ‘creators’ to the tune of $350m – including nearly $1m a year for rightwing psychologist Jordan Peterson.
In the process it has probably already solved the hardest challenge it will ever face: simply getting people on the internet to open their wallets, enter their credit card details, and pay for content.
So what’s the secret of its success?
The service was started in May 2013 by Jack Conte and his old college roommate Sam Yam. Conte was a fairly successful YouTube musician at the time. His solo YouTube channel had more than 150,000 subscribers, gathering a million views a month on his frequent releases, and as one half of the band Pomplamoose he had collaborated with the likes of Ben Folds and Nick Hornby.
But despite that, he was taking home just $50 a month from the site. “We’re talking about a football-sized field of fans who love someone’s content, can’t wait to see the next blog or make the next recipe,” he told National Public Radio at the time. “And the artist is making maybe $50 a month off of it. It’s outrageous, and actually it doesn’t add up at all.”
Patreon was the answer. Rather than focusing on the millions who watched his videos, or even the hundreds of thousands who liked him enough to hit “subscribe” on YouTube itself, the goal was to convince just a few hundred of his biggest fans to open their wallets and hand over a small amount of cash, on a recurring basis, to fund his continued creative activities.
On the date of its fifth anniversary, the company now employs 140 people from its San Francisco offices, hosting 100,000 creators who are supported by two million patrons. Since its foundation, it has paid out more than $350m, and this year alone it’s on course to pay out “well over $300m”, according to a spokesperson; twice what it distributed in 2017.