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

“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 video shout-outs, aka “Cameos,” that run for a couple of minutes, and then are delivered via text or email. Most Cameo videos are booked as private birthday or anniversary gifts, but a few have gone viral on social media. Even if you don’t know Cameo by name, there’s a good chance you caught Bam Margera of MTV’s Jackass delivering an “I quit” message on behalf of a disgruntled employee, or Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath dumping some poor dude on behalf of the guy’s girlfriend. (Don’t feel too bad for the dumpee, the whole thing was a joke.)

Cameo has managed to crack the ever-elusive supply-and-demand-side marketplace that few other businesses besides Airbnb, eBay, and Etsy have ever been able to crack.

From the beginning, Cameo set out not just to bring fans closer to their famous folk heroes, but to reimagine the very definition of fame. Until now, no company has been better able to tap into, graph, and monetize what fame means in Instagrammy, influencer-saturated 2020. And in less than three years, Cameo has managed to crack something much more complex: the ever-elusive supply-and-demand-side marketplace that very few businesses like Airbnb, eBay, and Etsy have ever been able to pull off.

Who’s the most famous person that Galanis would like to get on Cameo? David Dobrik, he tells me. (I had no idea who that was either.)

Dobrik is a YouTube star known for pranks like the giant foam explosion. He has 16 million subscribers and his last 10 uploads have averaged 15 million views—whether Justin Bieber pops up or not. Dobrik isn’t on Cameo yet, Galanis notes, but his housekeeper Chiqui is.

Back at the whiteboard, Galanis takes a marker and sketches out a graph of how fame works on his platform. “Imagine the grid represents all the celebrity talent in the world,” he says, “which by our definition, we peg at 5 million people.” The X-axis is willingness; the Y-axis is fame.

“Say LeBron is at the top of the X-axis, and I’m at the bottom,” he says. On the willingness side, Galanis puts notoriously media-averse Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch on the far left end. At the opposite end, he slots chatty celebrity blogger-turned-Cameo-workhorse Perez Hilton, of whom Galanis says, “I promise if you booked him right now, the video would be done before we leave this room.”

From the jump, Cameo wanted celebrities in the upper right quadrant: famous and willing. But Galanis was well-aware of his dilemma: How do you convince big stars to sign up for something with no track record or customers? And how do you get customers if you don’t have any stars?

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem that makes two-sided marketplaces so hard to build. In Platform Revolution, co-authored by MIT professor Geoffrey G. Parker, he lays out strategies for dealing with the problem. Cameo deployed, as Parker describes it, the “producer evangelism strategy,” in which you pursue producers who will bring their consumers along with them. So Galanis zeroed in on the bottom right quadrant: lesser-known, but more willing.

“The contrarian bet we made was that it would be way better for us to have people with small, loyal followings, often unknown to the general population, but who were willing to charge $5 to $10,” Galanis says. Cameo would employ a revenue-sharing model, getting a 25% cut of each video, while the rest went to the celeb. They wanted people like Galanis’ co-founder (and former Duke classmate) Devon Townsend, who had built a small following making silly Vine videos of his travels with pal Cody Ko, a popular YouTuber. “Devon isn’t Justin Bieber, but he had 25,000 Instagram followers from his days as a goofy Vine star,” explains Galanis. “He originally charged a couple bucks, and the people who love him responded, ‘Best money I ever spent!’”

Customers can choose from Esther the Wonder Pig, a plethora of Real Housewives, pro wrestlers, the shaggier half of Insane Clown Posse, an Elizabeth Warren impersonator, and Santa Claus.

Sure, Cameo features former icons like Brett Favre and Pee-wee Herman, but the obscure selection of celebs is exhaustive. Customers can choose from an astronaut, magicians, the actress who played Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on M*A*S*H, the “take one for the team” Fyre Festival guy, ventriloquists, Tara Strong who has voiced both Batgirl and Harley Quinn, Esther the Wonder Pig, a plethora of Real Housewives, pro wrestlers, the shaggier half of Insane Clown Posse, an Elizabeth Warren impersonator, and Santa Claus. There are also sign language influencers, entrepreneurs (including Away co-founder Jen Rubio, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and Shark Tank sharks Kevin O’Leary and Daymond John), drag queens, mostly clothed but still filthy porn stars, and even Ken Bone (remember the red-cardiganed man at one of the 2016 presidential debates?). It might seem odd that Ken Bone would somehow be in the same celebrity mix as Snoop Dogg, James Van Der Beek, or Bobby Hull, but this is all by design.

After a customer books a Cameo, the celeb films the video via the startup’s app within four to seven days. Most videos typically come in at under a minute, though some talent indulges in extensive riffs. (Inexplicably, “plant-based activist and health coach” Courtney Anne Feldman, wife of Corey, once went on for more than 20 minutes in a video for a customer.) Cameo handles the setup, technical infrastructure, marketing, and support, with white-glove service for the biggest earners with “whatever they need” — details like help pronouncing a customer’s name or just making sure they aren’t getting burned-out doing so many video shout-outs.

The company has three rules: No nudity. No inciting violence. No hate speech. So far, only two people have been kicked off the platform. (Cameo would only say that they were both men leaning way into their overly aggressive troll personas.) While big personalities like Pauly “the Weez” Shore might be hired to riff, celebs can also record scripted messages of up to 250 characters, which works well with “noncreative” talent like professional bowlers and fishermen. Cameos have been compared to greeting cards, autographs, singing telegrams, and any other type of brighten-up-your-day delivery, but none of those descriptions captures the bizarre uniqueness of the product.

Cameo has managed to corner and create such an exclusive segment of the market that its rumored top moneymaker — who personally earns upwards of six figures in a good month — isn’t Tom Hanks, Taylor Swift, or Lionel Messi. It’s comedian Gilbert Gottfried. “When I first started Cameo, I thought it made no sense, and I was shocked people wanted personal messages from me,” says Gottfried, a company evangelist who joked on Late Night with Seth Meyers, that as long as gets paid, he’ll make Cameo videos for anyone, even Al-Qaeda. The Cameo requests he gets are a mixed bag, he says — a dirty joke here, a few impressions there, even a rendition of Baby Shark for a one-year-old. But the roasts are the hardest: “I usually just end up saying, ‘Hey Bill, you’re a real asshole!’ That’s as witty as it gets, but people seem to love it.”

Galanis, 32, is a natural connector, the kind of guy who is a walking gregarious bear hug. (In high school, he was both class president and the goalie on a state-winning hockey squad.) He started his first business, Spartan Entertainment, while at Duke University, where he threw a weekly party near campus that grew to some 10,000 at its peak, well above Duke’s enrollment of 6,500. The list allowed Galanis to create additional parties and to spin off other moneymaking ventures like a DJ booking business, a hot dog stand, and a moving company where football players hauled packed-up dorm rooms to a central loading spot.

After graduating in 2010, Galanis took a job at the Chicago Board of Trade as an options trader. He spent five years as a pit trader, learning the ins and outs of exchanges, marketplaces, and rules of supply-and-demand. Then two important things happened: He began moonlighting as a TV producer—creating a syndicated television show starring Rocky IV foe Dolph Lundgren — and he landed a sales job at LinkedIn.

“One person’s D-List is somebody else’s favorite person in the world.”

In 2013, Cameo’s third co-founder Martin Blencowe was working in Hollywood for Galanis’ financier-movie-producer uncle, George Furla. Together, Blencowe and Galanis produced SAF3, an action-drama starring Lundgren that aired on a handful of stations including Chicago’s WGN. (Galanis got the guys in the trading pits to put up cash for the show.) Between 2013 and 2014, 20 episodes were produced to middling success, but Galanis noticed one thing about the concept of fame: “Dolph has followers everywhere, which is why I never talk about talent in terms of the A-list on down,” he says. “One person’s D-List is somebody else’s favorite person in the world.”

In 2015, Galanis left the Board of Trade and took a sales job at LinkedIn. The fall of the following year, Blencowe accompanied Furla to a funeral for Galanis’ grandmother back in Chicago. Blencowe had recently taken a job as an NFL agent with the idea that he could get players with outsized personas roles in film and television. At that time, Blencowe had all of one NFL client, defensive backup Cassius Marsh, who hadn’t starred in anything, didn’t have notable endorsements, and was actively costing his agent money.

What Blencowe didn’t know yet was that a 13-second video made by a shirtless Marsh behind the wheel, congratulating a friend of Blencowe on the birth of his son, would inspire a radically new way of fostering fan-celebrity interactions. While driving home from the funeral, Blencowe showed the clip to Galanis, whose gears started turning. “I was obsessed with the idea of what this could be,” he says. “I hopped on a plane to Los Angeles that weekend and we scribbled down ideas for three days.”

In 2017, Galanis quit his job at LinkedIn to launch the business. “By the end, I was the worst employee there because all I could think about was the idea for Cameo.” Apparently, slacking didn’t hurt his standing. After leaving, Galanis’s former boss at LinkedIn ended up being Cameo’s first real investor, leading the $500,000 seed round.

The co-founders agreed on two core truths about modern celebrity: There are more famous people today than ever before, and that these famous people are more famous than they’ve ever been at any time in history. “When we started, everyone wanted to know when we were getting LeBron or Beyonce, the biggest names on Earth,” says Galanis. “But the problem we wanted to solve was never ‘How do we get Tom Brady more money?’ It was ‘How do we get Cassius Marsh more money?’”

Galanis admits Cameo is a novelty that solves nonessential problems like, “How can I get Kevin from The Office to make wisecracks for my son?” (Here’s how: Book Brian Baumgartner for $175. Just know he can’t do the full “Kevin” because NBC owns the rights and his actual voice has a southern drawl, but he will definitely drop in a “That’s what she said” or reference a big pot of chili for verisimilitude.)

There is no exact metric, they determined, but if a person has, say, 15,000 Instagram followers, that counts as famous. If a person ever made an NBA roster, or appeared a couple of times on a sitcom, or performed a week at the local comedy club, or had a mildly popular YouTube video, or done anything that was paid attention to by a group outside their own friends and family, that counts, too. Fame is in the eye — and more to the heart of it — the wallet of the beholder.

But two weeks after Galanis left LinkedIn, he realized Cameo may have gotten scooped. He was talking to Lance Thomas, a buddy from Duke playing for the Knicks, who mentioned a rival startup doing a somewhat similar thing with booking bands and a lot of NBA guys. “I checked it out and they didn’t just have ballplayers, they had big names like Lil Wayne,” recalls Galanis. “I panicked, ‘Holy shit, they’re so far ahead of us!’” Fortunately for Cameo, two months later, Fyre threw its festival. And you know how that turned out.

Andy Warhol probably never said the thing about everyone’s 15 minutes of fame, but it certainly feels dead-on in the 21st-century age of influencers. However, making money off one’s own personal brand is still easier said than done; there are more known people in the universe, but there are also many more people who aren’t getting paid.

For famous people of any caliber — the washed-up, the obscure micro-celebrity, the actual rock star — becoming part of the supply side of the Cameo marketplace is as low a barrier as it gets. Set a price and go. The videos are short — Instagram comedian Evan Breen has been known to knock out more than 100 at $25 a pop in a single sitting — and they don’t typically require any special preparation. Hair, makeup, wardrobe, or even handlers aren’t necessary. In fact, part of the oddball authenticity of Cameo videos is that they have a take-me-as-I-am familiarity — filmed at breakfast tables, lying in bed, on the golf course, running errands, at a stoplight, wherever it fits into the schedule.

In fact, says Gilbert Gottfried, it’s almost a guiltily effortless way to make a buck. “I always have this dream that my parents could come back for one day, and my father — who owned a Coney Island hardware store, working with his hands for barely any customers — would ask me what I’m up to,” says Gottfried. “I’d say, ‘Well, I worked about 30 minutes today, talking into a phone, made $4,500, and now I’m exhausted and need to take a nap.’” (And in the age of the coronavirus and social distancing, it may be the safest meet-and-greet one can do.)

Even the celebrity impersonators are earning easy money. “It’s a surreal life,” says Evan Ferrante, aka Not Tom Cruise, who began impersonating the box office king for “shits and giggles” in 1997, during his freshman year at Boston University. He eventually nailed Cruise’s voice and mannerisms, accumulating YouTube likes, corporate gigs, and voice-over work along the way. But he’s found the most satisfaction at Cameo where he gets a lot of lovey-dovey requests to complete me.

“It’s the most gratifying work I’ve ever done because it’s a direct connection to my fans,” says Ferrante, who for $50 will be your Cameo wingman. “I wake up, down some coffee to get the flow going, and bang out 10 of them. I joke with my girlfriend that if I could make enough money just doing Cameos to travel, produce films, and work on a memoir about my life as Not Tom Cruise at my leisure, I would.” (To answer your next question, yes, they’ve met. Late one night in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, Not Tom Cruise met Real Tom Cruise, who had seen a clip of his doppelgänger winning an impersonation contest on Extra. “A powerful moment,” says the doppelgänger.)

As Cameo has grown in popularity, more well-known celebs from Galanis’ more-famous, less-willing quadrant are opting into the platform. In April 2019, Snoop Dogg signed up after making a guest appearance in an Ice T Cameo. (Snoop launched his Cameo on… yes, 4/20. Yes, he initially charged $420 a pop. And yes, blunts play a big part in his videos.) Then in December, there was palpable interoffice glee when Sarah Jessica Parker signed up of her own volition to do a week’s worth of Cameos benefitting the New York City Ballet. Other boldface names who’ve signed up in the last two months include Lindsay Lohan, Cedric the Entertainer, Cheer’s Jerry Harris, U.S. soccer legend Mia Hamm, WWE legend Nature Boy Ric Flair, and the 94-year-old Dick Van Dyke himself.

Cameo also recently added Jake Owen, a solid catch from the country music world—an oddly underrepresented genre in the Cameo universe. Owen debuted with a fan-friendly $25 price, which turned out to be uncomfortably low due to all the requests he got. Pricing has always been tricky because stars need manageable bookings, yet if they underbid themselves, they can’t keep up. (Owen quickly bumped it up to $100, and then to $150.)

At $2,500, Caitlin Jenner is the most expensive Cameo ticket because, for anything less, she doesn’t want to be bothered.

Guilt can play a part — nobody wants to fleece their fan base — but as Galanis puts it, “price is only important insofar as it’s a necessary friction that enables fulfillment.” In other words, no famous person is going to answer DMs from their fans on social media because there are infinitely too many of them, and no monetary reward at the end. “At Cameo, what we’re actually building is the world’s biggest database of what people’s time is actually worth,” he says, only partly joking.

One thing he’s discovered is that in some ways the Cameo marketplace is not all that different from eBay or Airbnb — what a customer is willing to pay depends on how much they value that particular celeb. “You can get Bo Jackson for $300, that’s an incredible steal,” Galanis says. (Apparently, Bo knows this, too. Since our conversation, Jackson has upped his rate to $400.)

Cameo’s founders initially used Townsend’s pal Cody Ko as a pricing guinea pig. Ko started at $3 a video and incrementally increased his fee. Ko’s earnings ultimately plateaued, with him making less money at $140 a pop than he was making at $125. It’s as basic as supply and demand gets, so Ko lowered his price. Some other celebs aren’t as pragmatic — they list at what price they want to believe they’re worth, take it or walk. (At $2,500, Caitlyn Jenner is the most expensive Cameo ticket because, for anything less, she doesn’t want to be bothered. Her recent video was all of 21 seconds.)

All of this calculus is baked into the Cameo recipe. “Having done this for a few years now, I know I could price bookings better than the celebrities themselves, but all we offer is pricing guidance based on past history,” Galanis says, noting that the average price per Cameo is around $50. “There are people who are literally losing money because they believe they are worth X. Whether it’s an ego thing, a competition thing, or a numerology thing, it costs them actual dollars.”

As a revenue-sharing business, it costs the company as well. The talent wrangling team tries to share data to help celebs understand their ideal price point, but they don’t always listen. Even so, Galanis believes letting people choose their price is still better than assigning one and risking celebrities getting pissed off — or worse, refusing to participate — because their price was too low.

About 80% of Cameos are purchased as gifts, but in order to get more repeat customers, the team is working on educating users on the many other creative deployments. “Right now, our biggest challenge is letting consumers know there are many different uses beyond birthdays, anniversaries, and seasonal requests,” says Cara Leahy, head of talent relations. “We’ve had people use Cameo to come out to their parents, for wedding proposals, or for individual invitations to bachelor and bachelorette parties.” (There are other uses, too: New York Times media columnist Ben Smith just paid former Giants linebacker Leonard Marshall to convince his dad to take more precautions against the coronavirus.)

Since the very first one was sent on March 15, 2017, from Cassius Marsh to a 16-year-old girl whose dad sent in a reaction video of her in happy tears, Galanis continues to discover unexpected white space. There have been videos encouraging sobriety, you-can-do-it motivation, and the will to keep battling life-threatening diseases. Says Paige Traeder, a senior talent rep: “We got to see the reaction video of a father crying when Troy Aikman mentioned the man’s son who died. It was so moving.”

The Cameo offices are one giant tribute to Chicago. Large paintings from local artist Danny Torres adorn the walls, portraits of Chicago royalty: Oprah, Michelle Obama, Bill Murray in a Cubs jersey, legendary house music DJ Frankie Knuckles, and crying Michael Jordan (the one cradling the 1991 Championship Trophy, not the meme).

While it would make sense for Cameo to be based in New York or Hollywood, staying put has been to Cameo’s benefit. As it happens, not everyone in entertainment or technology wants to be on the coasts. “I always wanted to work with talent, to be an agent, but didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, so this is perfect,” says Traeder, who works with 200 of Cameo’s top stars. “When you talk to people on the phone and tell them you’re from Chicago, it’s almost like they trust you a little more because so many of them are jaded about the industry.”

So far, the biggest challenge for the company — which was recently named one of the four fastest-growing year-over-year companies on the Andreessen Horowitz “Marketplace 100” — has been keeping up with growth. “In 2018, when we were named one of TIME Magazine’s ‘Genius’ companies, we had seven or eight employees and 3,500 celebrities signed up,” says Galanis. “Today, we have 20,000, but this isn’t Instagram or Snapchat. We have five product managers. Our reputation is further along than the company itself.” Adds Leahy wryly: “We have HR now, so we’re growing up a little.”

But they’ve experienced some tenuous moments that could break a young, fast-growing startup. Last month, the company got into hot water after a misconfiguration in its app potentially exposed private customer information, something Cameo says it has since fixed. And in December 2018, a group of white supremacists tricked Brett Favre, Andy Dick, and Soulja Boy into delivering a coded anti-Semitic message. The national media showed up at Cameo HQ, a would-be PR crisis for Cameo before most people knew who the company was. Galanis made the case that it was the first major snafu in 100,000 videos. But in the aftermath, Cameo didn’t change any policies. It doesn’t police videos — other than its three rules — so there could be more public relations headaches down the road.

Meanwhile, Cameo is introducing new functions that let customers upload a photo to show the talent who they are, or send a video request instead of a written one — anything to further personalize it. The company is also toying with tiered pricing, where the fee escalates if a fan wants more of a performance than a shout-out, meaning that a simple “howdy” from ’80s pop queen Debbie Gibson may soon cost less than what she currently charges to belt out “Only in My Dreams” from her bedazzled piano. Right now, for $135, Ernie Hudson will don the Winston Zeddemore suit from Ghostbusters, whereas Larry Thomas, the Seinfeld Soup Nazi, charges $60 a booking, but it’s $200 for the chef whites (otherwise, no suit for you).

Cameo has also been experimenting with letting businesses book its celebs for influencer marketing campaigns, which could mean better-paying opportunities for the talent — and for Cameo. The startup recently launched a partnership with Amex, in which videos feature a few actual cardholders in the Cameo stable, like actor Tom Felton and singer Christina Milian, supporting their favorite small businesses. Sports teams have also reached out to use in-stadium Cameos during games.

Cameo’s next big push: Celebs on the other side of the globe. One can imagine the financial floodgates opening up with the legions of K-pop fanatics and Bollywood fans. “It’s a big world with a lot of famous people in it,” says Galanis. “The good thing for us is there’s more every day.”

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