Creator Platforms

What Airtable, Roblox, and TikTok Have In Common

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Creator Platforms

Last week, I wrote that TikTok’s core innovation is that it enables anyone to be a creator:

“Low-code / no-code” isn’t the right term for this, but it’s close. On TikTok, someone with no specialized knowledge can create professional-looking content by leveraging sophisticated, but accessible technology. This is what’s groundbreaking about TikTok: TikTok is the most visible in a growing set of creator-focused tech platforms.

This trend is broader than TikTok. It encompasses everything from app development platforms that allow anyone to build a mobile app, to gaming platforms that make it easy to build a game. I’ve started calling these Creator Platforms.

This thesis is still a little half-baked (and I would welcome any feedback), but I wanted to dig into Creator Platforms this week.

The Evolution of Creator Platforms

When Apple introduced its Macintosh computer in 1984, it offered consumers the first mass-market graphical user interface and mouse. Suddenly, someone with no technical background could use computing power in an intuitive, approachable interface. Ever since, companies have been working to make complex technologies more accessible.

One of my favorite examples—and one that I think is underappreciated—is the emergence of website creation platforms in the 2000s. Before these companies (Squarespace, Wix, Wordpress), you would have to hire an expensive developer to build your website. But with them, anyone could launch a website: the mom-and-pop shop on the corner, the local hole-in-the-wall restaurant. This was revolutionary for small businesses, which hadn’t been able to afford a developer and which now had access to discovery and distribution on the internet.

Following website creation platforms, we’ve seen the evolution of full-on software creation platforms. An example is Airtable, where I work. As Airtable’s co-founder and CEO, Howie Liu, puts it:

We really want to take this power you have in software creation and ‘consumerize’ that into a form anyone can use.

Airtable provides pieces of software that people can build with—like Legos—to create powerful, customized applications. These pieces of software are called Blocks. For example:

  • Say you need to know where your customers are located. You have a list of thousands of addresses. You can use Airtable’s Map Block to quickly visualize the addresses on a map.

  • Say you’re building an app for an upcoming product launch. With the Countdown Block, you can easily add a clock that counts down until the launch.

  • Say you run a nonprofit and have a database of volunteers. You need to remind today’s volunteers when and where to show up. With the Send SMS Block, you can send a text message out to thousands of volunteers instantaneously.

Someone with no coding experience can mix-and-match Blocks to build an app customized to their own needs.

Introducing Airtable Blocks

Software creation platforms like Airtable will be an order of magnitude more empowering than website-building platforms. That mom-and-pop shop or local restaurant is now able to create with the power of software, which is a force multiplier for their business. Creator Platforms are, ultimately, about giving people the ability to use technology to create.

Most of the Creator Platforms I’ve identified are either software creation platforms like Airtable or content creation platforms like TikTok. Creator Platforms can be found across sectors and use cases:

The Characteristics of Creator Platforms

I’ve identified three characteristics that Creator Platforms share:

  1. They are intuitive to use and expand what a person is capable of creating.

  2. They save creators both time and money.

  3. They are open to 3rd parties that build upon each other.

1️⃣ They are intuitive to use and expand what a person is capable of creating.

Creator Platforms enable anyone to create with no specialized skills. Take Workato, which lets users integrate internal services (e.g., Slack, Salesforce, etc.) with a simple drag-and-drop interface. In Neeraj Agrawal’s words:

As we’ve all seen, the number of SaaS applications run by companies is growing at a very rapid clip. This has created a huge need to engage team members with less technical skill-sets in integrating all these applications. These types of users are closer to the actual business workflows that are ripe for automation, and we found Workato’s ability to empower everyday business users super compelling.

Similarly, tools like Bubble and DashDash make it possible for a non-technical person to build an app.

One challenge for Creator Platforms is that tools can become less accessible over time. Nathan Baschez and Sidhartha Jha recently wrote about this problem, using website creation tools as an example:

As the product grows more complex, it gets better for their long-time, most demanding customers, but it gets worse for new users with simpler needs…Maybe the best thing is to just accept that the product is powerful and complex, and build a way for people to hire help if they need it.

Website creation tools are doing just this. As Baschez and Jha point out, Wix Marketplace is the fastest-growing part of Wix’s business. Webflow, which I included above as an example of a Creator Platform, has a similar feature:

Beyond website creation, platforms like Bubble have added a marketplace for more complex use cases. Adding this feature doesn’t make the platform’s foundational tools inaccessible to new users, necessarily, but expands capabilities for more advanced users.

Creator Platforms also make it possible to build more complex and more powerful products. Glide, for example, allows a user to turn a spreadsheet into a customizable mobile app:

Glide’s users aren’t app developers; they’re everyday workers without technical skills. Glide meaningfully broadens these workers’ ability to create.

2️⃣ They save creators both time and money.

Last week, I compared content creation on YouTube vs. TikTok. Creating on YouTube is a much more onerous and expensive task.

Similarly, Airtable enables a small business owner to quickly build a customized app that she needs to run her business. Without Airtable, she would need to hire a developer—a process that would take months and cost her thousands of dollars.

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3️⃣ They are open to 3rd parties that build upon each other.

There’s a key distinction between being a publisher and being a platform. Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games, sums it up nicely:

In its current state, Epic is a game publisher: Epic created Fortnite and pushed it into the world. Contrast Epic with a Creator Platform like Roblox: Roblox has 40M games on its platform, all developed by 3rd parties using Roblox’s creator tools. This year, Roblox will pay out a staggering $250M to its network of 345,000 game developers:

This doesn’t mean Epic won’t become a Creator Platform over time—it’s building the capabilities—but it means that Epic isn’t a platform today.

Niantic, the maker of Pokémon Go, is also more of a publisher than platform today. But I included Niantic above because its biggest current focus is on building a platform for AR developers—and because I think that it will become the platform for consumer AR. The next breakthrough AR content will be created with the tools that Niantic gives its 3rd-party developers.

The true value of a Creator Platform is unlocked by 3rd-party creators on the platform. To come full circle with examples from TikTok and Airtable:

TikTok and Airtable both give users ways to build on each other’s content or software.

TikTok built a clever mechanism around sound. Any video’s sound automatically becomes a published sound that someone else can use in their video. The above screenshot is from a particularly funny video in which a woman laments that people can use her sound, saying: “You could literally get on this app and be like ‘Hey guys I broke my legs’ and there would be little kids dancing to your voice saying ‘Hey guys I broke my legs.’” Predictably, 147 people made videos dancing to her sound 🤷‍♂️

Airtable, meanwhile, built Airtable Universe (screenshot above) as an open-source marketplace for creators to use each other’s apps. Eventually, a small business owner might build an Airtable app for her business and then open up that app to the Airtable community—potentially earning income from other people using the app she built.

The best Creator Platforms enable creators to piggy-back on each other. The platform provides creators with powerful tools to create, and then also builds the mechanisms that allow for those creations to be shared and leveraged by users across the broader platform.

3rd-party marketplaces will become more common for software and content creation platforms. Just this week, Figma began to roll out Figma Community:

Final Thoughts

Creator Platforms cut across trends, sectors, and technologies—including many I’ve written about:

  • Future of Work: Creator Platforms both enable new jobs (e.g., Roblox developer) and make jobs more productive (Airtable, Bubble, Workato).

  • Gaming: Today’s most exciting gaming companies are Creator Platforms. The next Fortnite won’t be made by a publisher like Epic Games, but by a game developer using creator tools available in Roblox, Minecraft, or a newer platform like Manticore Games.

  • Augmented Reality: AR has a chicken-and-egg problem: creators won’t learn the new tech until AR breaks through, but AR won’t break through until enough creators make high-quality content. I believe this will be solved by platforms like the one Niantic is building, which will make AR creation tools more accessible.

Creator Platforms also intersect with other trends:

  • Low-Code / No-Code: I would argue that Low-Code / No-Code is a subset of Creator Platforms. I might go one step further and draw a distinction between low-code and no-code. Low-code platforms typically target developers, enabling them to create faster but to have preexisting skills. I’d put companies like Draftbit and Retool in this camp. I’m conflicted on whether low-code should be considered Creator Platforms, since they can’t be used by everyone to create. No-code platforms, meanwhile—such as Thunkable, Bubble, and DashDash—target users with no technical ability.

  • Passion Economy: The Passion Economy enables people to monetize their individuality—read Li Jin’s canonical piece here. Some Creator Platforms enable the Passion Economy—being a game developer on Roblox, for instance. But a key distinction is that Creator Platforms don’t necessarily facilitate new ways to earn income. Airtable, for instance, doesn’t create a new form of work but instead supplements an existing one.

  • Business-in-a-Box: Many smart people have written about Business-in-a-Box (Alex Taussig, Nikhil Basu Trivedi, CRV). As with the Passion Economy, some Creator Platforms may provide users with tools to build their own business, but more often provide users with an additional tool to make their work faster and cheaper.

Again, the Creator Platforms thesis is half-baked and I’m continuing to refine it. I’d appreciate any and all feedback. But I’m excited about Creator Platforms. The ability to create with technology has historically been limited to those with narrow skills. Creator Platforms are unlocking an incredible amount of innovation, productivity, and creativity by making the power of tech accessible to everyone.

Sources & Additional Reading—here are the pieces that inspired and informed this content; check them out for further reading on this subject:

Chart of the Week

I’m going to cheat a little and use the “Chart of the Week” as a mini follow-up to Spotify and the Future of Audio from a few weeks back. I think I can get away with it because it includes some cool charts (and because I make the rules around here).

One passage from Spotify’s Q2 shareholder letter stood out to me:

Growth in the number of artists making up our top tier (those accounting for the top 10% of streams) is accelerating; that cohort now stands at over 43,000 artists, up 43% from 30,000 one year ago. Our product and platform are driving discovery, diversifying taste, and helping up-and-coming artists reach new audiences. Gone are the days of Top 40, it’s now the Top 43,000.

With Spotify, music listeners have access to a much broader range of artists. But a downside may be that Spotify users listen to more artists, but are fans of fewer artists. I’ve begun to notice that I sometimes struggle to remember the artists behind some of my new favorite songs because I discover their music organically in Spotify playlists, rather than by searching for it.

I wanted to see if I could find data to support this. I couldn’t find data for recent years, but found that users listened to ~40% more artists from 2014 to 2017:

Daniel Ek, Spotify’s CEO, followed his shareholder letter by saying this during a podcast interview:

You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough. The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans… I feel, really, that the ones that aren’t doing well in streaming are predominantly people who want to release music the way it used to be released.

Unsurprisingly, artists didn’t like a music executive telling them they’re to blame for streaming’s poor economics—many of them had four-letter words to use. I was curious about how much the most-streamed songs on Spotify netted their artists. Here’s an estimate:

2.5 billion streams got Ed Sheeran $8.2 million. That seems like a lot, until you realize his tour grossed $775 million and you begin to understand why artists still make most of their money from live performances. (To hit the poverty line, an artist would need 4M streams a year—seems like a lot.)

One last Spotify thing: I found a breakdown of Spotify listening time in its F-1 filing. A plurality of listening takes place on user-generated playlists.

I wouldn’t call Spotify a Creator Platform, because it doesn’t provide artists with the tools to create music, but rather aggregates and publishes music for record labels. (This could change if Spotify ever layers in podcasting or music creation tools, like from its Anchor acquisition.) But this is an interesting example of sharing 3rd-party content. User-generated playlists are a way for Spotify users to create—and then those creations, which are public by default, benefit users across the platform.

Quick Hits

Here’s what to read and what to know from the week:

🌐 This is one of the craziest articles I’ve read in a while. Basically, business executives are tired of meeting over Zoom and are turning to video games to meet up. This is a screenshot from a CEO meeting with his client in the game Animal Crossing. He gave her 100 fish bait as a gift—a very extravagant gift in the game. Bizarre.

📈 Speaking of Animal Crossing, the game drove Nintendo’s profit up 428% (!!) last quarter. Gaming is having a bit of a moment. Digital game sales are up 230%. Take Two, the maker of Grand Theft Auto, doubled its profit. Microsoft’s Xbox sales are up 64%. And Epic Games raised $1.8B at a $17.3B valuation last week.

🖨️ Greylock’s Sarah Guo writes that we’re in a productivity rut because we’re overwhelmed by metawork. We’re using fragmented software (hints of The Rebundling of Work), there are too many disparate systems within orgs, and many collaboration tools only create more work. We need productivity software that’s easy-to-use, that encourages focused independent work, and that works across silos.

💰 One irony of today’s world is that being poor is actually very expensive: companies prey on the poor with overdraft fees, payday loans, and so on. Some people think blockchain technology is the solution. Blockchain-based payment systems can bring the world’s 1.7 billion unbanked or underbanked (including 25% of U.S. households) into the formal economy.

💡 mmhmm launched the beta for its presentation software. I tried it out, and it’s pretty awesome. Check out this video for the most entertaining product demo you’ll ever see:

🛍️ In only five years, Pinduoduo has grown into China’s second-largest e-commerce company and has a market cap over $100B. Turner Novak has an excellent deep-dive into how Pinduoduo got to this point. While Pinduoduo described itself as “Costco meets Disneyland” in its IPO filing, Novak points out that “Dollar Tree meets Candy Crush” may be a more apt description.

📹 Some YouTubers are beginning to monetize in ways beyond advertising. Between January and May, the number of YouTubers who no longer rely on ads for the majority of their earnings grew 40%. YouTube has rolled out tools to help its creators sell merchandise, charge for memberships, and encourage small in-app purchases. 

🍕 Nikhil Basu Trivedi has a new piece on why now may be the time for innovation in restaurants. He cites Domino’s as a past example. Back in 2008, Domino’s did the unthinkable: they reinvented their pizza recipe from scratch. Since 2010, Domino’s stock is up 195x 🤯 (Chart Source)

🎮 Back in 2018, Fortnite had just launched and Tyler Blevins (known as Ninja) was its fast-rising star. One night, Drake DMed Ninja: “Yo, let’s game.” Their Twitch stream drew 630,000 concurrent viewers, effectively making Fortnite and MMOs mainstream overnight. A year later, Microsoft’s Mixer poached Ninja from Twitch for $30M. With Mixer shutting down, Ninja is a free agent and is mulling his next act.

📡 This piece digs into why Big Tech and private equity have invested $20B into Jio. In short, Jio is India’s digital future: Jio has more telecom subscribers than there are people in the U.S. (!!) and in three months, it’s raised more money than the entire Indian start-up ecosystem raised in 2019. (Chart Source)

🍎 Apple’s market cap is $1.9 trillion—bigger than the GDP of Canada, Russia, or Spain. That’s up 5.5x since Tim Cook took over after Steve Jobs’ death. The WSJ has a good piece on Cook. Instead of launching new products like Jobs, Cook has focused on building a moat around the iPhone and iOS ecosystem (think Apple Watch, AirPods, Apple Music, and so on).

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