Illustrations: Eduardo Palma

How Cameo Turned D-List Celebs Into a Monetization Machine

Inside the surreal and lucrative two-sided marketplace of mediocre famous people

Patrick J. Sauer
Published in
19 min readMar 17, 2020

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“Who’s the most famous person on the planet?” asks Steven Galanis. “Someone we would want to book?”

It’s a bitterly cold January evening in Chicago, and we’re huddled at a whiteboard inside the nearly empty headquarters of Galanis’ company, Cameo, a fast-growing startup that peddles personalized celebrity videos.

“Uh, Leonardo DiCaprio?” I throw out.

Sure, says Galanis — a beefy, broad-shouldered, thick-bearded, energetic sports junkie who grew up in the suburban Greek neighborhood of Glenview. By conventional celebrity wisdom, Leo is up there with LeBron, The Rock, Ronaldo, and others who have one-name global recognition — and of course, he’d love to have all of them on Cameo — but Galanis has a decidedly unconventional take on what it means to be famous and the formulas to back it up. Leo, he says, is not at the top of that list.

These formulas have turned an obscure idea that Galanis and his college buddies had a few years ago about making more money for second rate celebs into a thriving two-sided marketplace that has caught the attention of VCs, Hollywood, and professional sports. In June, Cameo raised $50 million in Series B funding, led by Kleiner Perkins (which recently began funding more early stage startups) to boost marketing, expand into international markets, and staff up to meet the growing demand. In the past 15 months, Cameo has gone from 20 to 125 employees, and moved from an 825-square-foot home base in the 1871 technology incubator into its current 6,000-square-foot digs in Chicago’s popping West Loop. Cameo customers have purchased more than 560,000 videos from some 20,000 celebs and counting, including ’80s star Steve Guttenberg and sports legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And now, when the masses find themselves in quarantined isolation—looking for levity, distractions, and any semblance of the human touch—sending each other personalized videograms from the semi-famous has never seemed like a more pitch-perfect offering.

The product itself is as simple as it is improbable. For a price the celeb sets —anywhere from $5 to $2,500 — famous people record…

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