Ep015 – Devon Townsend, Co-Founder, Cameo
Fabian talks with Devon Townsend who co-founded Cameo, a platform that lets you book personalized video shoutouts from your favorite celebrities. Devon is 28, received 15.8 million in funding, and runs a 60+ employee company that both Howard Stern and Ellen love, and Snoop Dogg fully embodies. As you may imagine, Devon knows a thing or two about creating a brand that people will love, and he is sharing all of it with you on this episode. Dive right in!
I chat with 28-year old Devon Townsend, who quit Microsoft, became a viral Vine comedy star and yet he ended up creating Cameo, a platform that lets you book personalized video shoutouts from your favorite athletes, actors, and entertainers. His 60+ employee strong company, which has received 15.8+ million in funding to date, dispatches over 1,000 videos a day and signed up well over 10,000 celebrities, from Ice-T to Kevin O’Leary and from Charlie Sheen to Snoop Dog who are all happy to send you or your loved ones a personal message anywhere from 5 Dollars up to 2,500 bucks a pop.
Cameo was one of TIME Magazine’s 50 Most Genius Companies of 2018 and Devon was named to Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list this year, yet he is happy to connect with you via e-mail if you have any feedback for him.
Devon and I discuss creating a delightful and transparent brand, the obstacles of naming and how to craft an authentic visual and verbal brand language that people will freak out over and scream and laugh and cry. Yes, all of the above is possible with Cameo.
F Geyrhalter: Welcome to Hitting The Mark. I just spent two weeks back in beautiful Austria, so I apologize in advance if you have to suffer through an unusually strong reactivated German accent on this episode. Today I’m thrilled to welcome Devin Townsend, Co founder and CTO of Cameo, a platform that lets you book personalized video shout outs from your favorite athletes, actors and entertainers. Prior to Cameo, Devin was popular on the app Vine, with hundreds of millions of views and called on that experience when building Cameo to create something influencers and the fans would love.
F Geyrhalter: Devin has also worked at Microsoft as a software engineer, and met his co founder at Duke University. His 60 plus employees strong company dispatches over a thousand videos a day and signed up well over 10,000 celebrities from Ice-T to Kevin O’Leary, and from Charlie Sheen to Snoop Dogg, who are all happy to send you or your loved ones a personal message anywhere from five bucks up to $2,500 a pop. Devin was named to Inc. Magazine’s 30 under 30 list this year, and this is exactly how I learned about him in the first place. Welcome to Hitting The Mark, Devin.
D Townsend: Thank you. Happy to be here.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah, it’s great to have you here. So you quit Microsoft, became a viral Vine comedy star and yet you ended up creating Cameo. Give myself and my listeners a bit of that backstory and why you love it so much that on Inc. Magazine I read… You said you would not want to sell the company because you would just have a lot of money, be bored and probably try to start a company that’s very, very similar to Cameo.
D Townsend: Yeah, absolutely. So my friend and I in… this is in 2014 when my friend and I were both working as software engineers. And we had read some travel blog, got the travel bug, and we decided that we wanted to travel. So he had already been playing around in the app Vine and he was pretty popular. His name is Cody Ko, he’s now a full time YouTuber. And we quit our jobs, I was working at Microsoft, and we traveled the world for a year. And we spent our time coding independent websites and apps that were fun just to make money to support ourselves and also posting funny vines on our Vine account called Devon And Cody Go To Whitecastle. It was super fun, and we came back to America, and that was a lot of the experience that I drew on when creating Cameo.
F Geyrhalter: And at first sight, Cameo might look a little bit like a celebrity monetization platform. Right? But now that I spent some time on it prepping for our conversation, in my eyes, you actually built a brand that generates delight. Would you agree with my assertion that delight is one of those big traits behind the Cameo brand?
D Townsend: Yeah. Absolutely. When we set out to build this, my goal was to make Cameo so fun that what we call talent, the supply side of our platform, the celebrities on our platform, they would do it for free. And so in a lot of ways, I think the fact that this generates revenue and that it costs money to book a Cameo is partially just a limiting factor. It just means that it’s almost like a feature in the sense that it prevents celebrities from having way too many requests that they’re not able to fulfill. But it’s just super fun.
F Geyrhalter: And I also heard one of your co founders talk about how transparency is another important trait of the Cameo brand. How do you celebrate transparency from within your company, so the accompany culture, all the way to your talent managers, which I believe you have a good amount of that actually interact regularly with the celebrities?
D Townsend: Yeah, so this is actually one of our values. We call it no surprises, and it’s super helpful internally, externally. Basically we just want to share everything so people are not caught off guard, especially in unpleasant ways. But another thing that we do that I think is a little bit unique, especially for companies our size is every morning we have a stand up with the entire company, we go over all of the relevant key metrics of the business like revenue and Cameo has completed in the previous day, how many talent were onboarded. And I think, especially for new people, it’s really relieving to see that level of transparency and to know that everybody has access to the same information.
F Geyrhalter: That’s really cool, and it’s also very different from, without naming any startup names, some other startups that are popping up and becoming really, really big and employees very quickly start complaining about the zero transparency and top down kind of company culture like in Fortune 500’s. And so it’s awesome to see you guys do that round up in the morning, which is very much like in restaurants, right? Like everyone comes together and talks about what happened the day before, talks about what will happen this day and super transparent. It’s very cool. And talking about pricing, which you already mentioned, people also use Cameo to have celebrities deliver messages to their boss saying that they quit the job or marriage proposals to the girlfriends or coming out messages via DragQueen to their parents. But I’m actually surprised by what some celebrities do for very little money and how your site showcases that self worth of talent. You can literally browse through A list celebrities and gain an idea of how much they believe they’re worth by in a minute. So how did you go about setting any kind of pricing suggestions initially, and how did the pricing range develop over the years as you moved from sports, I believe, to internet influencers and now A stars? And above all, how did you project it would turn into a sustainable and growing business? It’s all about pricing in the end, right?
D Townsend: Yeah. So we actually did something pretty interesting, which is we took the number of work hours in a year, which I think is 4,000… so I think it’s like around 50 weeks times 40 hours. And we looked at how much money people were making. So if you’re in the NBA and you’re making $25 million, divided by 4,000, I think that comes out to around $125 per minute, somewhere in that range. And so that was one thing that we used early on.
D Townsend: When people didn’t know what to price themselves, when the talent on our platform didn’t know how to price themselves, we used that formula, which ended up being really powerful, and it just proves that with Cameo, the fact that you can do a Cameo video in a minute, the economics, even if you’re cheap, even if you’re $10 or $20, you can make a lot of money in a very short amount of time just because it’s so seamless and quick and easy to use.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. No, I totally agree, and I love that calculation and presenting that to your talent saying, “Look, this is how we came up with that number. You can go down, you can go up.” And I also agree how much money you can make with this. I’m on a platform called clarity.fm where I give advice to entrepreneurs who might not otherwise be able to afford me and unlike 350 or something an hour, but I’ve got 15 minute phone calls, and I get maybe a hundred bucks. But it’s so much value for the recipient, and in the end, like I made well over $10,000 too in the last couple of years just by giving advice. So I totally agree. I think it’s a win win situation. Let’s talk about your name. So Cameo is such a fantastic name for service like yours, as it stands for, and I’m going to read this straight from the dictionary, a small character part in a play or movie played by distinguished actor or a celebrity. But because of you Devin, I watched the 1986 video of Cameos. Fantastic hit, word up, this morning. How did the name come about first then, and were you aware or concerned about Cameo videos showing an 80s band on Google instead of your videos with shout outs by Snoop Dogg or Charlie Sheen?
D Townsend: Yeah, that’s the challenge when you choose a name that’s a little bit more recognizable. So obviously, with a name like Cameo, there’s going to be things that people associate that with. So the band being one of them. I’m pretty often stopped in public by people when I’m wearing a Cameo t-shirt and they’re like, “Oh my God, Cameo, I love that band.” And I’m like, “Awesome.” So originally, we came up with a ton of names. We spent a lot of time trying to think of the right name. As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s not easy. And we worked at a branding agency too. We had the name Hypd, H-Y-P-D, we had the name Hero Hub. I think like Thrillo was one of the names. And we never were super happy with any of the names we were playing around with even as we were building this thing and we were pushing ourselves to launch. And so we actually launched with the name… Now that I think of it, we actually launched with the name Power Move. Powermove.io was original website. But we continued to noodle on a name and try to find the perfect name, my co founder’s brother John, thought of it one day and we were just like, “Yeah, absolutely. This is the perfect name.” And we did that look up. We expected that the website would be taken, we expected that there would be… the name space would be totally failed, but we found that the website was gettable and there was nothing really in our space with that name.
F Geyrhalter: And usually, it’s the trademark search that puts a big hold onto it, especially with a word that is so common. But it seems like you guys found a word that was somehow still available and you purchased a dot com. And besides you being stopped on the streets, and besides the word up videos showing up at some point, all seems to all seems to be good. I just wish Cameo… The lead singer of Cameo, if he’s still alive, that he should be on your platform. That would that be good. That would be good.
D Townsend: It should be perfect.
F Geyrhalter: So Cameo was one of Time Magazine’s 50 most genius companies of 2018, which is insane. Congratulations to that. And I saw Ellen featured a video of yours on her show, which is also a dream of any company for that to happen. How does the PR machine behind Cameo work? It seems like right now is that magical moment. And you and I chatted about this just a minute before we went live, it’s this magical moment in time right now where Cameo videos are turning into a household term. So just like you’d say, YouTube videos, you say Cameo and people already know what is being referred to. How did PR or even branding help get Cameo to that point? How much of it was organic and viral food videos and how much do you feel was actually planned and scripted looking back at the success story of the brand?
D Townsend: So we went a while flying under the radar. I think it’s very natural when you’re starting a company to… and especially when you think you have a good idea, to want to keep it to yourself and try to minimize PR because you don’t want anybody to steal your idea. And at one point, maybe six months after we launched, The Chicago Tribune, I believe, did a story on Cameo, and we saw that it went viral among news outlets. So all these other news outlets across the country picked it up. And we found that this is just a story that people love. And I think that’s personally why our PR strategy has just been so successful and why people love to write about this is just… it’s like something that everybody relates to, everybody understands, and it’s really exciting, and it has that mix of pop culture and celebrity that really appeals to people.
F Geyrhalter: So true. So it really was a Zeitgeist fit. It just happened to be at the right time, no one else was doing it and everyone can relate to it, and that’s how it started to spread.
D Townsend: Yeah. My co founder, Steven is also super talented when it comes to PRs. He spends a lot of time doing interviews and stories and stuff like that, which has helped.
F Geyrhalter: Very cool. And one thing that I’m sure that my listeners, as they go on your website, they’re going to realize that you have tons of serious A list celebrities, but then you have hundreds of… how shall I say, questionable personalities and even adult actresses. So what standards do you set to keep your brand aspirational for potential talent, as well as customers, as well as press? Or does it really not matter that much? And if so, why would it matter or not matter how clean you keep the site as far as what type of talent you have on there?
D Townsend: We want anybody in the world who has fans to be on Cameo, whether that’s a really popular high school football coach who is a celebrity in their town or The Rock, who’s one of the most famous actors right now. And so we don’t really set out to police people based on their political preference or anything like that. So our platform is free to use for anybody who has fans. We have a couple of rules, no inciting violence, no nudity. But as long as you play within those rules, then we we’re not incentivized to make those decisions.
F Geyrhalter: Very cool. And besides being very much of a behind the scenes brand, you definitely celebrate Cameo as a brand by, for instance, having each team member have its own Cameo page, which is real fun, where you can actually book them and get to know them. Some of them are free, some of them actually charge. So you basically celebrate your team, just like actual celebrities. And on your site, you state that Cameo “creates moments that inspire”, your Twitter account features a screenshot of a hater saying that @bookCameo, which is your Twitter handle, “is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” as your actual Twitter brand page banner, which is just absolutely hilarious. How do you deliberately craft the actual Cameo brand’s visual and verbal language, or how much of it is just organic and is done by different team members?
D Townsend: So, when we started, we worked with a branding agency to develop the look and feel of the brand, which is what we’re playing off of now. So the visual look was set back then. And as far as the verbal brand, a lot of that just had to do with… When we launched, it was just me and my two co founders, and so our Twitter and all the copy on our site, we had to come up with. And so generally, we just picked stuff that we thought was funny, that we thought was engaging, that we thought people would want to read. And I think one of the things that I believe, before you even start a Cameo, but that I’ve seen with a Cameo is that people really respond to authenticity. Like in our case, we wrote stuff that we thought it was funny. Our Twitter header was something that, whatever that tweet was, book Cameo is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. And so that’s of what we do, and I think people will notice that it’s a little bit different and it resonates with them.
F Geyrhalter: And it definitely comes across as authentic. And I keep preaching that to my clients all the time. And branding is such a misunderstood term, and it feels like it’s so fake, it’s so crafted. But what does it mean to you? So branding, either with Cameo or personally, because you are a serial entrepreneur, brand is very important to what you do. What does it mean to you?
D Townsend: I think one of the things that I’ve seen is that branding is just how you represent yourself to the world and how the world perceives you, and in this case, the company Cameo. I think like we’ve done a lot of things that just represent what we think is cool, what we would want to use. That’s a lot of what we’ve done is built a product that we would want to use that we do use. As you mentioned, you can book any of us on Cameo. And the cool thing about building something that you would want to use and having that point of view is that it will really resonate with some people, and some people will be like, “This isn’t for me,” which also saves you time because the last thing you want when starting a company is these lukewarm people who think that they might be interested but they’re not actually interested and so you spend time trying to build something that would work for them or convince them to try your product and ultimately, it’s not a good fit anyway. So I think that that little bit of polarization is really powerful.
F Geyrhalter: That’s really wise. And it seems so logical, but everyone struggles with that. Every company, even my own consultancy. I have to make sure that I don’t get all those lukewarm leads that are just not right for me and I spend time with them, which is really a waste of time. So it’s the exact same thing with every brand. You have to make sure that you project exactly who you’re for so that you exclude the many and you gain a few, or in your case, you actually have huge traction. So well played. Devin, you’re 28, you got 15.8 million in funding the last time I checked, that might have changed by now, but what is one piece of brand advice for other founders that are listening?
D Townsend: I think it’s really important to pick a brand that represents you because… I think it’s really tempting to look at your market and try to decide who you want to be, and then craft your brand to fit that. But if you stray too far from what’s natural and what you’ve been doing for years and what you are the best in the world at, then you’re not going to be the best at executing that vision and executing that brand. But picking something that really resonates with you, you have such a super power in that, you know what excites you, you come into work excited, it doesn’t feel like work, so you can work unlimited hours and just really pour your heart into it. Townsend: And with that niche, you can really be the best in the world. I don’t think it’s really possible to get to the level of best in the world unless you’re doing something that really represents you and that you believe in more than anybody else.
F Geyrhalter: And that goes straight back to what you said in the very beginning or what I quoted you saying about, you really don’t want to sell the company because you would just start the same company over and over again because it is passion and passion can only come from within, and if you create the type of environment that you really, really enjoy. And so I think that that is super, super important. It goes back to authenticity, and I think that’s a big, big takeaway, that even with a brand that seems to be built on hundreds and hundreds and thousands of personal brands, the actual athletes and the actual celebrities, you yourself and your co founders created a brand that feels so real, and so authentic, and so transparent, and so natural to you that you enjoy building it and you keep being there and not creating a company that you just basically flip and… you get out of, right?
D Townsend: Yeah. We built this to be the most fun company that we could think of. And so far, we’ve succeeded. We set out to be like, “All right, what’s the company that we’d want to work at? What are the things we want to work on?” Every day, we build what we want to build, what excites us most. And so I think it’s almost akin to going up to a really popular standup comedian and proposing that that person sell their standup comedy career. They would never do that because they’ve spent all this time building something that they absolutely love and that represents them.
F Geyrhalter: So what does it say about you because you stopped your comedy career to start Cameo?
D Townsend: Yeah. And that was one thing that was a little bit tough. And I think at the time, a lot of people were confused by that, like why I didn’t, at least, try to start a YouTube channel and see where that would lead. But I’ve found that I really like the sort of… I’ve always really liked programming and computer science and the hard side of things, so in this case, I get to be pretty technical and focus on hard technical challenges, but also trying to think of like, “Okay, how can we make this really fun? How can make this resonate with people? What’s our message? What can we build that people will freak out over and scream and laugh and cry?”
F Geyrhalter: And that goes back to the tone of voice in your brand. And a lot of that is being crafted by you organically, and it’s a great outlet where you can balance the two things, which before, in comedy, you didn’t really have, you were mainly focusing on monetizing one side of it and now you can really play with the two, which again goes back to how it is so important to really understand what you set out to in this world as an entrepreneur and what you should do in order for you to give back the most and to actually enjoy what you do every moment of your time. So definitely agree with that. That’s why I changed running a 15 people agency to a two person consultancy because life is great, and that’s how it should be. You should just really find your niche. So, how can our listeners get their personalized video from Snoop Dogg or Lance Bass, or for 11 bucks, I think, even from yourself?
D Townsend: Yeah, so go to Cameo.com, C-A-M-E-O.com, check it out. We have over 10,000 selling on our platform now. You mentioned a few, pretty much… And our goal is to get everybody who has fans so that your favorite person in the world will be on Cameo. But check it out. Give the product a try and let me know what you think at email@example.com.
F Geyrhalter: Awesome. Yeah, I definitely want to tell everyone to take advantage of that. I think I’ve got some insanely amazing and just truly talented entrepreneurs on my show, and a lot of them give out their cell number, and a lot of them give out their email, and I think that’s not normal. You’re not going to see that in a lot of magazines and other podcasts. So I’m super, super appreciative of that, and I want everyone to take full advantage of being able to actually do that and share their feedback. So, thank you Devin for your time. I’m so glad that we finally got a 25 minutes podcast today. Thank you for your time. Based on your rate on Cameo, your minute is about 11, so I guess I owe you around 240 bucks now. And thanks to everyone for listening. And please hit that subscribe button to not miss any future shows and do give the podcast a quick rating. It is the one thing I’d love to get in return from you guys. This podcast is brought to you by FINIEN, a brand consultancy creating strategic verbal and visual brand clarity. You can learn more about FINIEN at finien.com. The Hitting The Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time when we, once again, we’ll be hitting the mark.