Cameo founder on why celebrities offer video shoutouts: ‘Not all talent are motivated by cash’

What do Ghostface Killa, James Van Der Beek and Carole Baskin of Tiger King fame have in common? They’re all available through Cameo, an online “shoutout” service where subscribers can book a personalised video message from a growing army of actors, athletes, entertainers and more.

The brainchild of founder Steven Galanis, Chicago-based Cameo has been around since 2017, but it was during the pandemic that it struck gold. Providing a much-needed revenue stream for performing artists hit hard by lockdown, and offering users a safe and memorable way to send some love, it boomed. Right now there are over 40,000 celebrities ready to say happy birthday to your mom, or give your boyfriend a pep talk, with roughly 1.3m messages sent last year alone.

Earlier this year, Cameo was valued at $1bn, joining the ranks of tech “unicorns” (a privately held startup valued over $1bn) like SpaceX and TikTok. That might sound like a lot of money for a company where for $30 actor Fred Stoller, AKA Fred Yerkes from Seinfeld can lovingly troll your best friend, but Cameo has been praised for its simple model that does not rely on unstable ad revenue. Instead, subscribers buy a one-off service, Cameo takes 25%, the rest goes to the creator. With only 20% of Cameos purchased outside of the US, there should be plenty of room for the brand to grow.

And if its success tells us anything, it’s that 2021 is a great time to be a fan. No longer kept behind lock and key of management and media, access to our beloved celebrities is now easier than ever, whether it’s through the daily communiques of Instagram or direct patronage through crowdfunding, OnlyFans and now Cameo.

We asked Steven Galanis about modern fandom, and the celebrity videos he wished he could have had on his journey.

Which celebrity video changed your life?

I had the idea for Cameo with my co-founder Martin at my grandmother’s funeral. He showed me a video that he’d gotten made for a friend, of an NFL player from his favourite team, congratulating him on becoming a father. I was like: we need to turn that into a business.

Do you remember who the first celebrity you signed up was?

Of course! You know, when you’re a founder you do everything – except code, in my case. But I did everything else. Until a year ago, if you called Cameo’s phone number on Instagram, it went to my cell phone … The first person we signed up was Cassius Marsh, an NFL player for the Seattle Seahawks. My co-founder is from Brighton, so early on we recruited people like soccer player Nigel de Jong from Manchester City and rugby Player Maro Itoje.

What have you learned about international fandom from Cameo?

That the world has gotten smaller. Talent is global and their fans are everywhere. Think about shows that are hits in the UK that end up in the US, or the Hollywood movies watched all over the world. Now we’re seeing K-pop and Bollywood have an impact globally. Last year we sold Cameos on 178 different countries and all seven continents, including Antarctica, where we sold 10 or 11 to researchers down there.

Has Cameo cut through to people who aren’t millennials?

Twenty-five to 34 is the most popular demographic for Cameo. But all the age groups are heavy users, even 65+. It’s primarily a gifting product so your mom may find out about Cameo to buy one for you. Eighteen to 24s are on the website the most, but they don’t have the purchasing power. They’re buying Cameos less but are receiving them more from parents or older brothers and sisters.

I wonder what sort of celebrities appeal to the 65+ demographic. Who would your parents want a Cameo from?

My father loves a Chicago Cubs player named Ernie Banks. And I’ll tell you an interesting story, Ernie Banks is the most famous Chicago Cub ever, he’s a legend. But when Ernie Banks died in 2016, he died penniless. He literally had under $1,000 in his bank account. And I thought about how sad that was and as we were thinking about this business, if Ernie Banks had been alive today, he could be making a living on Cameo and he could be turning his fame into an income stream that could have supported him and his family. That was really motivating because I know that for my dad’s 70th birthday, I would have easily paid more than what Ernie Bank had in his bank account, to get my dad’s greatest hero to wish him happy birthday.

How much do the celebrities earn? I’ve seen some of the big headlines, like how Brian Baumgartner – aka Kevin from the Office – earned $1m.

When we started the business, a lot of people in the press and even some fans were saying: “Why are these celebrities making more money? Aren’t they rich enough?” But one of the big things I’ve learned running this is there’s a massive gap between fame and money. Most people are more famous than they are rich and many of them are not making as much money as you think. Ninety-nine percent of the Screen Actors Guild is unemployed at any given time. In sports, the top 2% of athletes make 99% of all the revenue. On music, the top 1% of artists make over 90% of the concert revenue, etc. For a lot of people, direct-to-fan income streams like Cameo are the only thing that’s keeping them afloat.

So, last year there were over 160 people on Cameo that made over a $100,000 a year. That’s significant, that helps pay rent, and support families. And we’ve had a few people now make over a million dollars on Cameo. The last thing I’ll mention is, not all of the talent are motivated by cash, but they’re all trying to become more beloved and build relationships with fans.

Which celebrity would you book for the Cameo Christmas party?

It’s always a surprise, you never know exactly who’s going to show up at a Cameo party. In the past we’ve had Andy Dick and people from The Real Housewives. Maybe Kenny G will come and play saxophone.

Would you do a Cameo?

I already have, I’ve done 700 or so. We make all employees set up an account. People usually ask me for entrepreneurship advice.

So it’s not just roasting?

Not at all! We’re surprised every day by the creativity of our talent and the customers that are booking. I remember in 2017, Ben Bruce from the band Asking Alexandria got a request and the boyfriend goes: “Hey, this is for my girlfriend, she’s very bummed out she can’t make your concert in Chicago, her brother overdosed on heroin and she’s been dealing with this loss, it’s been extremely painful for her. And your music is what’s helped her get through this tough time. Tell her how much you love her and that you miss her.”

I still get chills thinking about it, so imagine as an artist hearing that request and getting to speak to that girl. That’s what it’s all about.