Nguyen, then a University of Pennsylvania student, had amassed a substantial social media following by posting photos of herself, jokes about her sex life, video game commentary, and anything else on her mind. It was like an online public diary, she said. But would fans pay to see her tweets from a private account?
It took just two weeks to find out: Nguyen said she earned $2,000 by making users send payments through Venmo and CashApp to gain access to her private Twitter feed. The experiment showed Nguyen and her co-founders that their start-up idea was viable.
After graduating from the Wharton School with a bachelor’s degree in 2020, Nguyen co-founded Fanhouse, an online platform for creators and online influencers to put content behind a paywall. Users pay to see exclusive posts and chat directly with social media personalities such as Nguyen. The software app is also used by gamers, athletes, musicians and others with large audiences they can monetize through Fanhouse.
“I just want people to be able to make money doing what they love,” said Nguyen, 24, who now lives in Los Angeles. “I love creating, I love making people laugh, and for a very long time, that was all free. It doesn’t matter if my tweet got a million likes. I made no money for that.”
To be sure, some content creators have earned a lot of money, but mostly through advertising. U.S. marketers are expected to spend more than $4 billion on influencer marketing this year, according to research from Insider Intelligence. That includes payments made to influencers or their representatives for sponsored posts on social media or other user-generated content.
Fanhouse is offering creators another way to monetize their posts more directly. Creators can charge a monthly subscription fee, receive tips for their most popular posts, or get paid for specific requests, such as singing a particular song or creating custom artwork. Fanhouse gets a 10% cut of each transaction.
“Fans of creators are rabid about their content, often watching a video the minute it is posted,” said Debra Williamson, a principal analyst at Insider Intelligence who focuses on social media marketing and advertising. “This sort of exclusive access has significant allure for those who follow creators closely.”
Still, not every creator will make money from subscriptions, Williamson said. Those with smaller followings may struggle to convince their fans to pay a monthly fee. Williamson believes that most creators will continue to make the bulk of their earnings from sponsored posts and merchandise deals.
Since it was launched in November 2020, creators have collectively earned more than $6 million through Fanhouse, Nguyen said. The company, which has 12 full-time employees, has also raised $1.3 million. Investors include former Tinder executive Jeff Morris Jr. and Mantis VC, an early-stage tech investment firm formed by music duo the Chainsmokers. Fanhouse is already profitable, Nguyen said.
Fanhouse is in some ways a response to OnlyFans, an online content subscription service that has become popular for sex workers. Last year, the London-based platform announced it would ban pornography , citing pressure from banking partners. But OnlyFans reversed course after a backlash from users and sex workers.
Fanhouse bills itself as a “PG-13″ platform and prohibits sexually explicit content. That allows the Los Angeles-based start-up to work with major payment processors that charge lower fees and raise money from investors that have rules against porn. It also appeals to influencers who don’t want to be associated with sex work, Nguyen said.
Nguyen, who emigrated from Vietnam as a baby and grew up in Houston, turned to OnlyFans to make money during the early days of the pandemic. In March 2020, she lost her work-study job at the front desk of her Penn dorm when the university temporarily closed. That cut off a crucial part of her income that she sent home to support her family, she said.
OnlyFans allowed Nguyen to monetize her massive social media following, bringing in thousands of dollars a month. But it also attracted threats and sexual harassment. Followers pressured her to send nude photos, which she refused to do, or shamed her for being on OnlyFans.
“I was afraid people would find me because they would threaten to hurt me. They threatened to hurt my family if I didn’t send them things that they wanted to see,” Nguyen said.
She shared the story of that lucrative but scary experience with her eventual co-founders: Khoi Le, the start-up’s CEO, and Jerry Meng, the chief technology officer. The three of them came up with the idea of testing the Fanhouse concept by putting Nguyen’s Twitter behind the paywall. They were included in this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 list because of Fanhouse’s early success.
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Nguyen, who is chief marketing officer of Fanhouse, is also a creator on the platform, charging users $10 a month to see exclusive posts. On Fanhouse, she shares more photos and jokes, asks fans for feedback on potential Twitter posts, and gives followers insight into her life, such as when she was recently locked out of her apartment in the rain. “Please send help,” she joked.
“I think with anyone that develops a following, you’re saying something that no one else is saying,” Nguyen said. “I talk about my life, my sex life, things that not a lot of people will talk about, but in a very blunt, honest, and funny way. I think that just captured an audience.”
After working on the start-up for a few months, she quit an investment banking job to focus on Fanhouse. “This is what I would want to do for the rest of my life,” she said of Fanhouse. “This is what is meaningful to me.”