Michael Le has turned dance videos and millions of followers into an $8 million fundraiser.
The Los Angeles-based creator has been cultivating his online following 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 compete in challenges.
His extensive followings and business efforts have earned him spots on Teen Vogue and Vanity Fair spreads on Rising Influencers, and on Forbes’ list of Top Designers of 2022, where he joined Addison Rae and the D’Amelio sisters.
But Le, who has 52 million followers on TikTok, plus an additional 2 million on YouTube and Instagram respectively, told dot.LA he doesn’t want to be defined by his social media presence.
“I think a creator builds a brand, and that brand is basically just a business,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know how to grow their business so they can create more content.”
But there’s no denying that his presence on TikTok has thrust him into the limelight. In 2020, Forbes named him the 6th highest paid TikToker. Bringing in $1.2 million that year, he told Forbes that 60% of his revenue came from brand deals. The rest comes from label promotions and outside sources. That number has grown to $5.5 million in 2021. The offers 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 on a popular YouTube channel, Just Maiko. This has always been his end goal.
In 2015, he started posting videos on Muical.ly before it was acquired by TikTok. When he agreed to his first brand deal in 2016, he said there was no standard for such relationships. He said he had to figure out how to navigate brand deals and sponsorships, relying on his own entrepreneurial spirit to negotiate deals.
“It was honestly new territory, so I felt like no one really knew what the norm was at the time,” Le said.
These days, Le said, brands are taking social media and influencer marketing more seriously. But quickly successful influencers struggle to understand the financial component of their careers. From managing taxes to managing money, Le said many new creators don’t anticipate the amount of work it takes to become a full-time creator. Some struggle to grow their own creative team, like editors and hiring managers, which can help take content to the next level.
“The influencer space is just going to get tougher over time,” he said. “I think those who are able to continuously evolve, evolve and adapt to markets are the ones who will really be able to 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 Joystick gaming platform with tech entrepreneur Robin DeFay in June after raising its funding round. . The duo are in the process of raising an additional $110 million in Series A funding.
Through the platform, Joystick lends assets such as weapons, lands, and characters from popular games to users as NFTs. Users can then sell items such as NFT skins made from the resources of this land and sell them for a profit.
Web3 sees it as the future of content ownership: Joystick allows gamers to earn all the revenue they generate in exchange for a small monthly fee to the platform, a game model that combines the traditional “pay -to-play” with what Le is calling “play to win”.
“The fact that many people did not understand [Web3]or understand, just gave me the opportunity to realize there was untapped potential for benefits and to be able to lead the next generation of the internet,” Le said.
The currency on Joystick is called JOY tokens, which can be purchased on the Ethereum network; holders will gain access to special assets, reward distribution, limited-edition merchandise, and educational materials in the form of cameos from top industry influencers.
The is not the first influencer to delve into Web3. Addison Rae hit hers in January and last year TikTok released a collection in collaboration with a number of designers.
Catherine Tucker, who co-founded the MIT Cryptoeconomics Lab, said the idea of decentralized trust appeals to influencers because it gives them space to collaborate with their community.
Still, Web3 remains a thorny space for creators, she said. Ownership issues are potential drawbacks for creators.
“I think it’s not entirely clear which standard will prevail and also that there’s very little at the moment to secure ownership outside of the Web3 universe,” she said. “For example, I can always take a picture of my screen and there’s nothing a content creator can do.”
JR Lanis, vice president of Polsinelli’s Securities & Corporate Finance Practice, said some crypto companies are created by people who are technologically sophisticated but lack business acumen.
“Influencers may not be aware of the rules, so they need to be careful how they influence,” Lanis said.
Claiming a lack of knowledge won’t absolve you of potential litigation with the SEC over improper security promotions, as many celebrities discovered over the summer when they received warnings from Truth in Advertising, a watchdog group. The organization discovered that at least 17 celebrities, including Paris Hilton, Reese Witherspoon, Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Fallon, had not disclosed their personal financial interests in the digital assets they purchased.
Lanis said it’s important for influencers to understand what they’re promoting and how they’re doing it.
“Once you understand the basic framework of the rules for promoting titles or trying to avoid promoting titles, then focus on the underlying technology of the coin as opposed to the coin as a means of value, so I think influencers can probably agree,” 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 online entrepreneur and influencer whose content guides people through the world of crypto. With Joystick, Le said he wanted to educate people on how to navigate Web3 and NFTs. It’s important for his audience to understand the space even as it continues to evolve, he said.
Le sees Joystick as part of his brand, one he hopes can continue to grow. Social media provided the basis for where he is now. After signing with WME earlier this year and landing a cameo role in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” he says his platform has allowed him to go beyond being seen as just a social media star.
“I personally think I’m building an empire,” Le said. “I really try to take my time, brick by brick, to make sure that every video I make is really good and I’m proud of it.
Every new component, from family vlogs to acting gigs to Web3 education, helps ensure his longevity as a creator, he said.
“I don’t really point that out,” Le said. “Because it’s really just a long game.”
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