Li Jin was one of the first Venture Capitalists to take online creators seriously and back them. In 2020, she left her post at Andreessen Horowitz to start her own fund, Atelier Ventures, which then merged with Relevant where she is a general partner. Jin—who recently shared her productivity secrets with Fast Company—writes a Substack, has spoken about worker rights in the creative industry, and is known for her pro-labor stance. One of her ideas is a “Universal Creative Income”—similar to a Universal Basic Income—for creators. She recently expanded on her work, her investment strategy, and why she has staked her future on Web3.
Fast Company: What drove you to start your own fund and invest in what you call the passion economy?
Li Jin: When I was working at Andreessen Horowitz, I was covering marketplaces and social networks and all types of consumer categories. One particular thesis area that I began to focus a lot on towards the tail end of my time there was the passion economy, which dealt with how online platforms could open up more opportunities for people to monetize their skills and expertise. I distinguished that from the creator economy because I think the passion economy is much broader. I believed that that would be a major trend in how people accessed income on the internet.
In early 2020 when the world was melting down and we were entering all of these covid lockdowns when, when work was going remote and a lot of people were unfortunately experiencing job loss, I decided to leave and raise a small fund to invest in the passion economy. That moment coincided with this broader period of turmoil that changed what work represented to people. I felt that there was going to be a turning point in how a lot of the population accessed income. They would shift towards flexible platforms that allowed them greater autonomy. Instead of having one single source of income, they would create a portfolio of different sources of income for themselves. In general, they would follow this new playbook of earning on the internet based on the loyalty they developed with a customer base or an audience base on different social platforms.
FC: What are some of the companies you identified as promising models for this decentralized content creation economy?
LJ: I invested in a bunch of platforms that fit [my] thesis, including companies like Substack and Patreon. I also began to invest in Web3 companies as well, like Mirror, which is a crowdfunding and publishing platform that’s built on Crypto rails. I invested in an NFT marketplace called Foundation. I invested in Syndicate, which is enabling people to form on-chain investment clubs
FC: Your view on the passion economy is that the platforms should help enable creators via funding through a Universal Creative Income—can you talk a bit about that?
LJ:I have spent a lot of time studying the creator economy, talking to creators, investing in creator products, tools, and platforms. The creator economy follows this extreme power law curve where a very small sliver of creators were able to make a living. We always hear about people who are extremely famous and have a huge audience and are able to parlay that into different sources of income for themselves based on brand advertising or merch or whatever it might be. But the reality on the ground is really different. Most creators exist in this state of precarity and are barely earning anything. Very few creators are able to be full-time creators, and the vast majority of creators were just kind of scraping by earning a little bit of income here and there.
I became interested in this idea of ‘How do we build the creator middle class?’ One of the recommendations I had is a Universal Creative Income. A lot of platforms, including Facebook and TikTok, were coming out with creator funds as a way to pay creators from their own balance sheet as a way to incentivize and retain the top creators on those platforms. These creator funds were huge—sometimes billions of dollars. I felt puzzled by how a lot of them were run because it was clear to me that they were spending on the most successful creators who already had a ton of views. The creator funds were paying them rather than paying emerging creators. If the goal is to be able to broaden this as a career path to many more individuals, then a Universal Creative Income could be used to fund emerging creators. They could subsidize creators’ initial starts on these platforms and help them become full-time content creators.
FC: Do you think there is room labor activism in the passion economy?
LJ: A hundred years ago, we had a single employer that we earned all of our income from. With the internet, that’s different. People are earning income from gig platforms or creator platforms. So what labor looks like is really different now. Gig workers and content creators are reckoning with a lot of the same issues that workers have reckoned with centuries ago during previous labor movements. They deal with the fact that their livelihoods depend on the actions and decisions of platforms and algorithms that they don’t have any ability to influence. They also have to work under policies or products that they find suboptimal or dissatisfactory, and they might have negative experiences in their workplace. I am interested in how the relationship between the platform worker and the platforms plays out in the future.
FC: What can that labor activism look like?
LJ: Some internet-based workers are influencing platforms through a modern form of collective action. It looks different than historical labor movements and unions. It’s definitely not as organized. It’s more diffuse. People are taking actions collectively and banding together with other gig workers or other creators to try and influence the policies of these platforms.
About a year ago, a bunch of Twitch streamers decided to start this movement to take a day off of Twitch to push back on the platform and campaign against the harassment of marginalized creators. It was actually called a Day Off Twitch and became a trending hashtag on Twitter. And as a result of this day off Twitch, platform viewership dropped by like 10 or 15% that day. Another example is, uh, a couple of years ago, someDoorDash drivers banded together, in this movement called Decline Now, after they noticed that there was a loophole in the algorithm for how drivers got paid. The loophole was that if they declined any delivery that didn’t pay at least $7, it would then be given to the next dasher for a slightly higher price. They realized that they could actually collectively earn more by banding together and, and declining all these deliveries.
FC: How effective are those tactics?
LJ: These examples are marginal and not as effective as previous, historical efforts to organize and negotiate with employers has been because of the decentralized nature of these workers. I ultimately came to the conclusion that all of these decentralized collective action movements would ultimately not be as impactful as changing who actually owns these platforms and networks themselves.
FC: Related to that, you’ve staked your career on Web3. Why is that?
LJ: Over time I became convinced that Web3 was the future of how we enabled my vision of the passion economy. I decided to go all in on Web3 last year and join Variant as the third general partner. Our mission is to fund the user-owned web to accelerate a future in which users of internet products become owners of them. We call this the ownership economy. Our belief is that the next generation of winning products and services are going to be the ones that actually turn their users into owners. Crypto and tokens make that vision possible. You can think of tokens as this internet native or digital native property-right system. Tokens allow for value to be distributed to users anywhere, programmatically, instantaneously. One application of tokens is to actually reward users for their participation in different networks or different projects.
We exist in a world in which there’s increasing wealth inequality and income inequality, a world in which I think a lot of people are sensing that these centralized Web2 platforms have disproportionate leverage over various facets of their lives. I think that vision of a user owned web is actually more important than ever before.
FC: Recently, the sector has seen a lot of controversy– I’m thinking of event’s like FTX’s bankruptcy. Are you concerned?
LJ: Recent events have been disheartening, but we don’t feel like it’s representative of the industry as a whole. In any nascent area of technology, there are always scams and frauds that happen as people take advantage of users. We can’t let this instance color the perception of the great work that incredible mission driven founders are actually working on towards that vision of the user out web.