Steven Galanis: How the CEO of Cameo turned celebrity obsession into a unicorn business
Capitalizing on everyday people’s obsession with celebrity, Cameo became a unicorn company within five years of its founding and grew at a rate surpassing even some of tech’s biggest success stories. On Wish I Knew, we sat down with CEO of Cameo Steven Galanis where he shares the biggest mistake he sees aspiring entrepreneurs make, what he wished he knew during his entrepreneurial journey, and the values that keep him motivated during tough times.
Steven Galanis is an entrepreneur passionate about building strong lasting relationships predicated on integrity, respect, and mutual trust. His passion for connecting people led him to found Cameo, a marketplace where fans can book personalized video shoutouts from their favorite people, with Martin Blencowe & Devon Townsend. Steven has been named “40 under 40” by Crain’s Chicago Business, Entrepreneur of the Year Midwest Region by EY, “Innovator of the Year (B2C)” by Chicago Inno, and has twice been named one of Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs.
Steven Galanis: How the CEO of Cameo turned celebrity obsession into a unicorn business
From his “eureka” moment to building a “rocketship” to coping with the pandemic, the Cameo founder shares three lessons from a remarkable career.
Sometimes the best ideas aren’t actually new—they’re simply old ideas updated for modern times. Such is the case for Steven Galanis, CEO and co-founder of Cameo. One of his favorite early memories of building the company was visiting Bobby Hull, his father’s all-time favorite hockey player, in his home to show him how to film a Cameo. Bobby was 89 years old at the time. “I naively thought, we're showing him the future,” says Steven. “But Bobby said to me, ‘Steven, I've been doing this since I was 19 years old. Just the medium's changed.’”
Capitalizing on everyday people’s obsession with celebrity, Cameo became a unicorn company within five years of its founding and grew at a rate surpassing even some of tech’s biggest success stories. Today Cameo works with over 50,000 entertainers, influencers, and celebrities to bring personalized surprise and delight moments to ordinary people. Recently, they've expanded to include a B2B arm of the business, a merchandise component, as well as a kids offering based on animated characters.
We sat down with Steven as part of the Wish I Knew podcast, and he shared the one question entrepreneurs need to answer, the biggest mistake he sees aspiring entrepreneurs make, as well as what keeps him motivated during tough years.
Wondering if entrepreneurship is for you? Answer one question
Steven began his first entrepreneurial venture while still a student at Duke: an entertainment company that threw parties at the biggest bar on campus. Over time, it expanded into a t-shirt business, a DJ rental service, a moving company, and even, briefly, a hot dog stand. At its peak, the company had over 17,000 college students from Duke and other surrounding schools as part of its network. “Right out of college, it was pretty evident that I was gonna become an entrepreneur,” says Steven. “It just took me a while to have my big idea."
But even though Steven had found his big idea, he was still plagued with doubts about leaving his steady job as a senior account executive at LinkedIn to pursue entrepreneurship full time. While mulling over this question, he travelled to Nicaragua with some coworkers. But it was one question a coworker asked him that changed everything. As Steven recalls, “He said, ‘This idea is too big. If you don't do this and somebody else builds this as a billion-dollar company, could you live with yourself?’ Nobody had asked me that question before, but the answer was so obviously no,” says Steven. “For aspiring entrepreneurs out there, if the answer to that question isn’t ‘no,’ then don't do it. It's too hard.”
Don’t mistake a market opportunity for a passion that’s big enough to be worth the tradeoffs
“I've seen so many VC hype cycles at this point,” says Stephen. “Everybody wants to do AI right now. A year ago, it was web3 and crypto. And before that, you had to have a creator economy company.” Steven often meets entrepreneurs who’ve made the same mistake: They jump into entrepreneurship when they find a big market opportunity. They’ve glimpsed their chance to be the best in the world at something. But that something isn’t aligned with their deep-seated passion, so they don’t have enough drive to sustain them through the inevitable hard times.
“I truly believe the core of your company has to be that thing you love more than anything. That thing you’d do if nobody were watching and if you weren't getting paid. It takes that level of obsession to become a subject matter expert in that domain,” says Steven. “When I was working at LinkedIn, I was producing movies on the side and was doing all types of things in the sports industry. I was connecting people. I was always developing the exact skillsets I needed to build a company like Cameo, purely out of passion.”
Steven’s unbridled passion for entertainment and creating hype made him the ideal leader for a company like Cameo—and this translated into mega success. “By any metric, the path we were on was the classic rocketship. We were ahead of where even companies like Instagram or Snapchat were at certain parts of their life. Cameo grew 500% in a year during COVID. By March 2021, they were valued at over $1 billion after raising a $100 million Series C. “It felt like the dream company. We had a product that made people happy every day.”
Strong conviction in your thesis can buoy you through tough years
While Cameo was part of the fortunate few companies to experience tailwinds during the COVID-19 pandemic—growing 500% in 2021—the company has not been immune to the challenges facing the technology sector today. Speaking of 2023, Steven says, “Look, it’s been a tough year.” Last year, the company had to do its first reduction in force (RIF.) “We had to exit some initiatives that would probably be paying big dividends right now and that's really challenging,” he says. “Our ambitions remain the same, but the timeline has certainly had to be reigned in.”
But Steven still exudes unbreakable conviction in his thesis of how his market is evolving. “The three truths that existed when we started the business are only becoming more clear to more people today,” he says. “One, there are more famous people on earth today than ever before. Two, people are more famous now than there has ever been at any period of time. And three, counterintuitively, because of social media, the half-life of fame has actually increased. What was once 15 minutes of fame might now actually last 15 years, which is the life of a platform. At the end of the day, I believe that these trends are all still going hard.”
And despite challenging circumstances, the business is expanding. As of 2023, Cameo is no longer just a platform for people to buy personalized videos of their favorite celebrities. Nowadays, Cameo's fastest growing part of the company is their B2B revenue line, "Cameo for Business," which offers brands direct access to their portfolio of athletes, entertainers and creators. It’s still early, but Cameo now has 14,000 corporate customers. The kids business partnered with Candle Media to bring Coco Mellon, the biggest YouTube channel in the world.” Big things are on the horizon.
Fundamentally, Cameo is a business about creating moments of surprise and delight. Its product literally makes people’s days. For Steven, this belief and the rewards of the business keep him charging ahead through challenging years. “When you build a brand that matters in consumer internet especially, it changes your life in ways that you can't possibly imagine.”
Steven: Where entrepreneurs get stuck is they find a big market opportunity. They jump in, but it’s not in their core, the type of problem that they wanna solve. And to really be the best in the world at something, I truly believe it has to be the thing that you would do if nobody’s watching, if you weren’t getting paid for it. You know, I, I just think it has to be that thing that you love to do more than anything.
David: Welcome to Wish I Knew. The show about the revelatory, ‘aha’ moments that founders, CEOs, and leaders discover along their own business journeys. And why taking risks leads to growth. I’m your host, David Cowan.
David: And this… is NFL line backer Cassius Marsh.
Cassius: Hey Reese! It’s Cassius Marsh. Just uh, here chilling here on a Thursday afternoon. I heard you one of my big fans, I just, you know, I appreciate you being out there screaming for me. Just wanted to wish you a happy 16th birthday. Just appreciate you being a fan!
David: Cassius, very appropriately, is ‘kicking off’ our second season of our show. But he also helped jumpstart an influencer revolution.
David: And while this is not the voice of our guest on today’s episode — it’s a voice that every Cameo employee knows: Because it’s part of the first Cameo ever produced. …Back in 2016. But fast forwarding seven years to today… What is Cameo?
Many refer to it as a “celeb shout out service”. But by their own explanation, Cameo works with over 50,000 entertainers, influencers, and celebrities around the globe, with a core mission: To bring personalized surprise & delight celebrity moments, right into the palm of your hand, including them wishing your loved one a happy birthday or a congratulations on a particular milestone.
David: So on today’s episode, we’ll listen into a Wish I Knew conversation unlike any other on our show between Steven Galanis, CEO and Founder of Cameo, and our moderator Shannon Brayton, Bessemer Venture Partners’ Chief Marketing Officer. They happen to overlap from their days working at LinkedIn.
Today you’ll hear them talk about Cameo’s ascent to unicorn status, the way the COVID-19 pandemic counterintuitively helped their business, and what Steven wishes he knew all along the way.
So with that: I’ll hand it over to Shannon to unpack all of this …and so much more…
Shannon: I’m super excited to welcome Steven to the Wish I Knew podcast. He and I met back in 2017 when he was exiting LinkedIn and he. Pinged me on LinkedIn and asked me if I was interested in advising and I never wrote back to him.
Steven: Well, I wish you knew sooner! No. In all seriousness, Shannon, thank you so much for having me. Um, you know, it’s really great to be here and I’m excited for this.
Shannon: Okay, so we’re gonna start by you telling us a little bit about who you are and what do you do,
Steven: Wow. Who I am. That’s a, that’s a big, broad
Shannon: It’s an existential question. That’s right.
Steven: My name is Steven Galanis and I’m the co-founder and CEO o of a company called Cameo. I’m from, uh, just outside of Chicago, Illinois. born and raised there. I went to Duke for college. During college, I started my first entrepreneurial venture, which was called Spartan Entertainment. This was the OG days of Facebook when you needed a .edu address to even get on the social network. And, uh, I found the biggest bar on campus and we started throwing non-denominational parties there. Um, so you didn’t have to be in a certain fraternity or you didn’t have to be in a sports club. That business got big. We ended up having 17,000 college students, uh, from Duke, UNC, NC State and other surrounding schools, join our network and we used that to start selling a bunch of different services. We had a t-shirt business, we had a DJ rental service, we had a moving company. We even had a hotdog stand for a little bit. Um, so, you know, I think right outta college was pretty evident that I was gonna become an entrepreneur, and it just took me a while to have my big idea.
David: And as we know, that big idea did soon come — But not before Steven got his first real taste of the tech industry in 2015, when he became a senior account executive at LinkedIn – where he first met Shannon.
Shannon: You and I worked together at LinkedIn, even though we didn’t know each other well at the time. I’ve never known actually how you came up with the idea for Cameo, and I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about that. People are always looking for inspiration on ideas.
Steven: Well, we had the idea at a place that I hope nobody else ever has their billion dollar idea. Uh, we had the idea at my grandmother’s funeral of all places.
Shannon: That definitely requires a story.
Steven: My, my co-founder Martin and I were leaving the funeral. He worked for my uncle who was a pretty big movie producer in Los Angeles, so paying respects to me, paying respects to my uncle, he flew for the day. Uh, and while I had gone to LinkedIn, he had started becoming an NFL agent. His whole idea was if I could find a big, uh, strong, like defensive lineman with a big personality, maybe I could back into finding the next Rock. And he ended up pulling out his phone as I was driving him back to O’Hare, we’re stuck in traffic, and he showed me what today we call the first cameo.
Steven: And in this video he was getting Cassius Marsh, a player on the Seahawks to congratulate a good buddy of his, uh, who at the time, was number two in Nike’s Athlete Marketing program. This guy worked with the biggest athletes in the world, but he was from Seattle, loved the Seahawks, and Martin got Cassius Marsh to congratulate him on becoming a father for the first time. So Martin was showing me this video, not to say let’s start this business, but just to show, look at how charismatic this guy is. He should be a movie star. There’s definitely, like, things we could do with them. And I watched that had the eureka moment, right away and it was like, Martin let’s the new autograph and we should sell this. And that’s how we started Cameo!
Shannon: So Steven, a lot of people would look at that video. and not have an automatic idea for a business. I mean, those entrepreneurial roots must run super deep. So you told the story about what you created at Duke, but have you always known or thought that you would be somebody that could take an idea and turn it into a business?
Steven: Absolutely. You know, by background, I’m Greek. Our family owns the oldest wedding studio in Chicago. It’s been around since 1945 you know, my uncle runs that studio today. This is my mom’s side. his brother is a big movie producer. I’m doing Cameo. So there’s something about the camera that has struck like three generations of my family. You know, first kind of like analog camera, then obviously video and, and now we’re doing, you know, mobile video. So I don’t think that is by accident. I think there’s something about the camera as a mechanism that like really spoke to, you know, me and- and, you know, three generations of my family who I watched all be very entrepreneurial. My dad’s an immigrant from Greece. At the age of 18, he chose to stay in America by himself. Paid his way through college, by working at McDonald’s. College was $81 a quarter back then. So at the end of the day, like I- I think being around entrepreneurial people my whole life. There was no kind of work-life balance like the business was discussed at- at the kitchen table. And I just grew up in a family that like, love talking shop, love talking deals and ownership was just something that I was surrounded by my whole life.
Shannon: In your mind, what qualities really make the best entrepreneurs, especially in this day and age, with everything going on?
Steven: I think resilience is huge. I think entrepreneurs have to have a very, uh, you know, high pain tolerance. They have to be able to just have absolute conviction in where they’re going. And, through kind of skill and charm and charisma, be able to tell people like, Hey, here’s the future. This is where we’re going. Like either from an investment side or an employee side. You know, get on board with me. Come ride with me. And like, this is how we’re gonna change the world. And you have to do that. And I even remember when I was preparing to leave LinkedIn.
Steven: I was in Nicaragua with a, a few folks that I worked with and I remember one in particular, this guy Will Hearn, uh, said, Steven, this idea is too big. If you don’t do this and somebody else builds this company and builds a billion dollar company, could you live with yourself? Nobody had asked me that question before, but the answer was so obviously no. The second that, that question got asked, there was just something in my brain that, you know, it wasn’t about like the path that I would’ve kept if I, stayed at LinkedIn or did something else, like I had to go do this.
Shannon: I love that framing that that person asked you. We owe that person for the- the fact that you ended up doing it, because that is one of the questions that you would ask yourself pretty routinely, right?
Steven: For aspiring entrepreneurs out there, if the answer to that is no, then don’t do it right. It’s too hard. and there’s another framework that I really have come to love. Uh, it’s called Ikigai, and this is one that a lot of people at LinkedIn used to talk about as well \\ and the belief is to be the best at the world at something it has to be the intersection of what are you great at, what do you love to do, what does the world need, and what can you ultimately get paid for and make money doing? And if you’re great at something, the world needs it, you love to do it, but you can’t get paid for it, you’re just a missionary, right? If you’re great at something, the world needs it, you know, you can make a lot of money doing it, but you don’t love it, you’re a mercenary. So you can remove those circles at any point, but so important and, and I’ve seen so many of these VC hype cycles at this point, right? Everyone wants to do AI right now, and a year ago, wanted to do Web3 and crypto. And two years before that, you know, you had to have a creator economy company, and before that it was micro mobility. Where entrepreneurs get stuck is they find a big market opportunity, they jump in–but it’s not in their core, the type of problem that they wanna solve, and to really be the best in the world at something, I truly believe it has to be the thing that you would do if nobody’s watching. If you weren’t getting paid for it, to get that obsession that it takes to become that domain subject matter expert. You know, I, I just think it has to be that thing that you love to do more than anything. And when I was a trader or I was working at LinkedIn, you know, I was producing movies on the side. I was doing all types of things in the sports industry. I was connecting people like the exact same skillsets I had, I was always having. But it has to be in, in the subject matter you want. Otherwise it’s too hard.
David: So that’s what Steven did – he set out to be the best in starting a business that checked all of his boxes, even knowing it would be hard. Steven launched Cameo in 2016 and decided to leave LinkedIn to pursue it full time at the end of that year. And this interview was recorded in March 2023, right in the midst of a wave of layoffs in the tech industry as well as the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which you’ll hear Shannon reference.
Shannon: With everything going on in the market. You’ve got banks collapsing, you’ve got hard decisions to make about layoffs and people, and I think it’s a really tough time to be an entrepreneur. So I love that you love what you do,So tell us how things are going with that context.
Steven: Yeah. Look, it has been a, uh, a tough year. And funny enough on Instagram today, you know how it’ll show your, your memories of what you were doing. A year ago or two years ago, uh, I saw my co-founder sharing that, two years ago today we officially became a unicorn, And at that time, that was like the exact, uh, four year anniversary of us launching. And, the path that we were on, by any metrics was, it was the classic rocket ship. I mean, our metrics were ahead of where, even companies like Instagram or Snapchat might have been at like certain parts of their life and you know, it was kind of like the, dream company we had, uh, the best culture. We had a product that made people happy every day. We were growing like crazy. And obviously, uh, as COVID came, I made a lot of decisions during that period to fortify our company and to try to diversify our revenue and try to make our culture more resilient. And to be honest…the decisions that I made at the time that were heralded as forward thinking or genius, you know, upleveling, my whole executive team,or, um, like having a company that had really deep roots in Chicago and taking it fully distributed to the point where only 22% of my employee base is in that Chicagoland area at this point. So, you know, I look at a lot of the decisions that I made that, you know, again, were the right thing to do at the time or we’re the forward thinking thing to do, you know, might be things that today, like I would’ve done differently with hindsight.
David: Coming up… If hindsight were 20/20, what would Steven and his team have done differently with Cameo at the peak of its success? And was it only a matter of time before a global pandemic — COVID-19 — would upend their unicorn status? That’s next.
Shannon: So of all the things you just covered, I’m super interested to know if you could reverse one thing of a decision you made during the COVID period, what would it be
Steven: I think the decision to go fully distributed was, hundred percent the right decision at the time during COVID but a hundred percent has been the wrong decision for our company and our culture. I’m one of those people that kind of needs to shake hands and, and jump into a meeting and like, I need to feel the pulse. And, you know, when we went from a hundred to 400 people fully distributed and our center of gravity left Chicago and it went all over the place, um, I think a lot was lost in our culture. And me and the executive team talk every day about how do we get back… but unfortunately I can’t tell everyone you have 90 days to get back in the office when, you know, we hired almost all of them fully remote and they live all over the place. So, you know, we’re trying to do the best that we can to build collaboration and, you know, fly people in, um, you know, to Chicago or, you know, have norms that we’re all expecting, you know, on a team-to-team level. Like we work these hours no matter where you are in the world. And- and we wanna collaborate in that. But certainly like things have been lost, uh, for us being fully distributed. And, it’s really, really hard when you get to a certain size and have certain key team members that aren’t in the place that you necessarily want them to hit the hard reset and start over.
Shannon: So you talked about what you miss, having everybody together, but what do you think employees are not getting out of a fully remote experience? What are they missing that they don’t even know they’re missing?
Steven: Mentorship first and foremost. I think about how- what a tragedy it is for the kids that had to go to college, you know, partially remote and then entered the workforce. You know, maybe they’re two, three years into the workforce and they never had to like, be in early or stay late or, you know, just do those things that would happen. You know, have a- a older colleague tap ’em on the shoulder and say, hey, I need a little help with something. \\ You know, we always hired kids straight outta college or interns and grew them in. But you know, a remote internship program is really hard. We would have, you know, 20, 30 interns at a time. Um, and those became , the lifeblood of our company that young energy. They were learning, they were excited, and you know, they just don’t have that. And you know, if there was an idea that some intern had or some young kid had that wasn’t bubbling up. So I just think so much has been lost.
Shannon: So when other CEO friends of yours come to you and they’re on the precipice of having to make this decision, do we go fully remote or do we bring everybody back? How do you guide people? It’s so hotly debated everywhere I go. I’m just really interested in your perspective given you talked about it was a mistake you feel like you made in 2020.
Steven: There’s things I would’ve done differently, but I- at the time, you also have to remember that we were one of the few companies in the early days of COVID that took off right away. You know, there were businesses that were going to zero and they were laying people off. And we had a once in a generation opportunity to grab the best talent, which is something that I learned at LinkedIn, right? It’s not great talent that wins, it’s differentiated and- and that’s what we try to do. We try to get the best people no matter where they were. Um, so I’ll, I’ll preface it this way: Almost every CEO that I know wants to get their people back in, with one exception. Culturally, there is a way to make distributed work exceptionally well. And the- the big change that you have to do to do remote, I think, exceptionally well is you can’t have a culture of synchronous meetings. So, um, I do think it can work. I just think that you have to be all in on the, uh, documentation side and, and all in on asynchronous communication.
David: And this — as with many other executives working fully remote — had its consequences, with very real examples that bubbled to the surface.
Steven: I had a situation with two of my executives, where there had been some \\ passive aggressive behavior that kind of went on and on and on for months. And because they were all fully distributed and they’d never met each other when we finally did bring them to a meeting together, um, I remember having to like literally stop a meeting and, and everybody out except for the two of them and end up calling like a mini mediation session just to make sure that like, hey guys, like we need to work together to go forward. And that conversation I think ended up being like a great turning point in, in the way that that executive team gelled together. But, my executive team that I built during COVID um, you know, I think in total might’ve spent 10 days with each other in the course of a year and a half.
Shannon: Right. And we know what that can do. I mean, it’s really challenging. So I’m glad we spent time on this because I do think it’s something people are really wrestling with now that we’re three years into this.
Shannon: Okay. Shifting gears slightly…you said you saw a picture of the day you became a unicorn two years ago. Was it today, actually, two years ago today?
Steven: Well, we announced it two years ago today. The deal actually closed, funny enough, on the exact four year anniversary of the day we launched.
David: Cameo grew 500% in the first year of COVID. By March 2021, they raised a $100 million Series C round that valued the company at over $1 billion.
Steven: The highs that we’ve had at Cameo, I would say have been as high as any company out there like, you know, during COVID, you know, everybody’s struggling, they’re having the worst time ever. And it was just like, just a dream for us, right? And- and even before that, we were the fastest growing consumer marketplace the year before COVID, which, you know, we, we’ve always been talked about is this like COVID success story. But when I think of the, like a moment that just kind of summed it all, I actually remember the day that we closed our Series A. And coming outta Chicago, \\ you know, Bessemer had had invested in Raise you know, pretty early, um, you know, maybe five, six years before. But, you know, this is a place where especially in consumer internet, \\ you could count on on maybe one or two hands of companies, you know the Groupons of the world, the Grubhubs, but they’re kind of like, they’re not happening multiple times a year. It might be every three or five years or something like that. And I remember \\ watching bank account go from like, I don’t know, 500,000 or something. Uh, you know, 13 million, like we raised 12 and a half at that point. And I remember how happy my team was and, after everybody left, and I’m not a crier, I literally went under my desk and I just, I just cried. And it was like, water works. It’s like, So not me. I’m like, as even tempered as it gets. I don’t get high, I don’t get low. But um, that’s a moment that \\ all the hard work and sacrifice, it just kind of came pouring outta me.
Steven: We were just celebrating Cameo’s sixth birthday at All Hands this Tuesday. And we brought the very first customer back. And, you know, he had no idea for years that he was the first customer. But, you know, he- he bought this cameo. He recorded his daughter’s reaction to it. That’s how reaction videos got started. We didn’t plan that it was just, it was so magic, like the whole, you know, kind of, uh, a ride up from that moment. \\ We had the idea at my grandmother’s funeral, it felt like every time something could break right or left, it just kind of went our way, you know, and we had this unbelievable streak of the right things that needed to happen for the business. Just kind of like, things just kind of fell in place. But you know, at the end of the day, like, you know, my job is to make sure that this great business that we have can live up to the highest of its potential and that we have the right team around to, to make sure that we can, you know, fulfill our vision and mission. And we have people that, you know, really stick to and adhere to our core values. And, you know, that’s what I try to do every day. But of course, like you have a million regrets, uh, of things when they don’t go the way that you, that you planned, because ultimately at the CEO it, it is all on you.
Shannon: One of the things I have found so often, people always come to me and say, I really wanna move up the corporate ladder. I need to become a manager. And they end up becoming a manager and inevitably a year later they come back to me and they say, oh my God, being a manager is actually so hard.
Steven: I literally had never had a corporate manager job ever before being the CEO of Cameo.
Shannon: That must have been a really hard jump to make.
Steven: Mostly, I would say I try to be more of a coach than a manager. I don’t think I’ve ever wrote a performance review, but I try to be very transparent with you about, you know, how you’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Um, one really, you know, kind of funny situation, uh, about a year and a half ago, uh, I was promoting my VP of product to be the head of product, and nobody working under me had ever been promoted before. So I didn’t know- I literally didn’t know that like there’s a promotion packet and like a comp change and like all these things. I just had literally never promoted anyone that was in my direct line before. And this person who had come out of, uh, a lot of big corporations, he’d been at Google, he’d been at Uber, uh, he got frustrated with me because I never sent a promotion packet over. And I literally didn’t know I was supposed to do that, right? So I’m saying like that’s the type of thing that, you know, um, I didn’t, I, I didn’t know. But, um, I do want to give a big shout out to Bing Gordon. He’s kind of a legendary CEO coach to. so many like great founders and consumer internet and gaming in particular. And Bing gave me a framework that I really used as the bedrock of the way that I would manage the company, you know, for better or worse. Um, and he really said that at the end of the day, like when he looks at all the CEOs he’s ever been around the top 10 percent, you know, all do five things and really only five things. They focus on product market fit. They focus on their executive team, uh, third was about uh, mission, vision, values, and, Fourth is communication and alignment. Does everybody understand, you know, what we’re doing and are we, we being transparent and are people talking about the business the same way? And then, lastly, uh, keep the lights on. So this is fundraising and not burning too much money. And, and really as a CEO, those are the five things that you need to, to concentrate on. And he calls us forever OKRs, like no matter what the year is, those are the five things that you gotta nail.
Shannon: Did you memorize those or did you read those off something because that was pretty well internalized?
Steven: Oh, no, no. This is like as core as it gets. So, golden processes are these frameworks, or, you know, could be values or way of doing things that when somebody spends one day in your culture or by Friday, the end of their first week. Like they know that this is different. We do things differently at this company and, and maybe your best employees–the best golden processes are gonna be things that people steal and take their their next place. So the next play philosophy is something that I’ve always espoused, right? Like I talk to people in the same way, like my first day at LinkedIn. Mike Gamson got on stage and said, “two years from today, none of you will be doing the job we just hired you for. We know that. We support that. And guess what? At LinkedIn, we literally have the data to prove that your job in the next two years is to figure out what’s your dream job. Our job as a company is to give you the skillset you need to get that next job, internal or external. And oh, by the way, when you’re ready to leave, make sure you found someone better than you to replace yourself.” Like, that was LinkedIn’s culture. That was so different than the culture I had trading. And it’s something that I’ve tried to do at Cameo. So we’ve hired a lot of entrepreneurs, like people that will be entrepreneurs, but they aren’t yet. Uh, from the science I used to make everyone at Cameo take a personality test, not like a free one, it was called 16 personalities.com, and 3% of the people that take this test are actually in the entrepreneur, archetype of a personality. Uh, they tend to be people that, you know, like loss aversion is not something that exists. They’re not thinking about the trade offs. And I love that archetype and I’m very proud of the people that have left Cameo to go start their own companies and, you know, proud to have invested in them and mentored them and, you know, hopefully that they took, you know, some of the good. And hopefully a lot of the bad and try not to make the same mistakes that I made. It’s a really important part of our culture.
David: And while an entrepreneurial spirit in prospects is important to Steven, it’s not the only trait he looks for.
Steven: We try to hire for hungry, humble, kind, curious learning machines who love to win. Uh, that’s what we really like. When people haven’t worked in our culture, it’s almost always been because of ego. And Cameo has always been a very low ego place. Anyone that interacts with anyone at our company, whether it’s a talent talking to their talent rep or customer service writing into customers or some reporter interviewing me or someone trying to work for us, every single person should feel so special. They should literally feel like the velvet rope at the Oscars just got lifted up. They’re being put on the red carpet and everybody wants to take a picture with them. They’re like the center of attention. And if you don’t have kind, curious, uh, folks like that, um, that genuinely they wanna know about you. Like they, they wanna solve your problem, they’re competitive, they wanna win, then they’re not gonna last very long in our culture.
Shannon: And how much caring and feeding do you have to do with the people on the platform, like Cameo internally–do you have account managers? How is it structured?
Steven: Yeah, we do, but you know, to be honest, the tech has gotten so good that a lot of it’s automated at this point. It’s- it’s pretty rare that my team’s gonna have to call and like, teach somebody how to, uh, make a video. We were built on the back of giants, right? By the time we started Cameo, everybody uh, had had done a Snapchat before, they knew how to take a selfie video. Um, you know, people would use Tinder. They knew how to swipe right or left if they wanted to do something. So a lot of the core like, user interfaces that we made, um, were, you know, things that I think felt really, really familiar to the talent. Some of my favorite stories, I remember, you know, Bobby Hall, who was my dad’s favorite hockey player. He was like 89 years old. I went over to his house in the early days of Cameo to get ’em set up and I thought, you know, we’re showing him the future. And he’s like, Steven, I’ve been doing this since I was 19 years old. Just the medium’s changed.
Shannon: I love it. I’m gonna use my least favorite word that the Valley overuses so much, which is you’ve been on a journey these last four years, especially the last two. What’s the future for Cameo? What are you most excited about? It looks like Cameo for Kids got off to a great start. How does it feel now when you look out to the future with a leaner and different business?
Steven: Our ambitions remain the same, but the timeline upon which we’re gonna be able to go get them, we’ve certainly had to reign it in, right? So–
Shannon: You have a lot of company.
Steven: For sure, I’m not just talking about us, but I think this is broadly the case. You know, I look back at our Series C pitch deck and I see these businesses that we are gonna build. And, you know, a year ago when we did our first riff, we had to exit some, you know, initiatives that would probably be paying big dividends right now. and you know \\ that’s really tough. Um, but at the end of the day, like when I think about our market, the three truths that existed when we started the business, I think are only becoming more clear to more people today. We fundamentally believe that there are more famous people on earth today than ever before. We believe that people are more famous \\ now than they’ve ever been at any period of time. And you know, counterintuitively, we actually believe that because of social, because of a following, you know, the half-life of fame’s actually increased. So once you have 15 minutes of fame today, it actually will last 15 years. You know, when you think of the hundred biggest brands in the world, like many of them are people now. And you’re seeing this with, you know, Rihanna and like what she’s built with Fenty, or you’re seeing this with Mr. Beast who, you know, was just at, uh, the LionTree Media conference and you had all the titans of industry, like listening to him about what, where the future is and \\ so at the end of the day, I believe that the things that, that we set out to do, like those trends are all still going hard.
David: And as mentioned at the top of the show, Cameo is no longer just a platform for people to buy personalized videos of their favorite celebrities. Today, Cameo’s fastest growing part of the company is their B2B revenue line, “Cameo for Business,” which offers brands direct access to their portfolio of athletes, entertainers and creators.
Steven: Our B2B business has been the most exciting part of Cameo. Um, you know, brands are becoming more reliant on video for their digital marketing. Um, they want bespoke user generated content from celebrities and influencers. Uh, we can get that faster and cheaper and quicker and more authentic than anybody else in the world can. And I think we’ve got a multi-billion dollar opportunity there but, you know, we need time to do that. We have 14,000 corporate customers that are starting to work with Cameo for business, but it’s- it’s still early days. Our kids business is something that we’re really excited about. You know, we partnered with Candle Media to bring CoComelon, uh, the biggest YouTube channel in the world. And, you know, used AI and voice models to take these animations and bring these characters to life…
Steven: The reaction videos that you see from kids are- are absolutely incredible. And then, you know, lastly, um, I think about our merch business and so many of the biggest, uh, celebrities in the world are- are now building these great brands around, uh, different products that we’re selling. And, you know, we can do everything from, you know, traditional merch to autographs. Like, you know, we even worked with David Dobrik to create, uh, candles that were branded with, you know, Marvel. So like we’ve done so many different things. Or One Tree Hill basketball jerseys. Uh, so, you know, the future is very, very bright for, you know, cameo and, we just continue to, to chip away at what we think is a massive TAM.
Shannon: And who on the Cameo platform has had the- gets the most request? I’m super curious.
Steven: Yeah, so the- the person that gets the most requests is actually uh, out of the UK he’s one of the leads of a show called the, uh, Inbetweeners. His name’s James Buckley.
Steven: He’s done tens of thousands of Cameos, I believe, at this point. and you know, one of the funny things about that is at the time he was nervous that he wasn’t ever gonna get booked. He’s like, who would ever want a cameo for me? So, uh, what we found is that these iconic personalities tend to do amazing. And, and in the US you know \\ it’s been very well documented that people like, um, Brian Baumgartner from The Office tends to top the charts year after year.
Steven: And one thing that I found to be really interesting is television routinely will outperform, uh, movie stars. And I guess that’s because, you know, you’re, you’re watching them, they become part of your life. You know, the Real Housewives are an extension of so many people’s living rooms and, you know, on the women’s side, like they do better than anybody.
Shannon: Okay, so I’m gonna ask you five quick questions. Okay. This is like our little wrap up part.
Shannon: Um, what are you reading or watching currently?
Steven: I’m watching Drive To Survive, the F1 show on Netflix.
Shannon: What’s your favorite place that is not your home or your work?
Steven: I think Wrigley Field on a nice summer day is hard to beat.
Shannon: If you could have a stage walk on song, what would it be?
Steven: Well, funny enough, I actually do. Um–
Shannon: Oh, even better.
Steven: So on Rome, uh, which is what we use as a cloud HQ, everybody can set their walk up songs. Uh, mine is “All of the Lights” by Kanye West.
Shannon: What skill do you wish you could learn?
Steven: I wish I could freestyle rap. I spend a lot of time with rappers and I just think it’s like the coolest skillset.
Shannon: And what do you wish you could do more of?
Steven: I wish I could spend, uh, more time with my friends and family.
Shannon: That whole CEO thing kind of gets in the way sometimes, huh?
Steven: Sometimes but I try to make it work, if I can be there, I’m there.
Shannon: Okay, great. And then we’re gonna wrap with a question that seems sort of obvious. Steven, what do you wish you knew?
Steven: One of the things that I still surprises me every day is when you build, you know, a, a brand that matters in consumer internet especially, it changes your life in ways that you can’t possibly imagine. And, you know, while I could have always imagined. Uh, the business, you know, getting to where it got and, you know, wh where it can be in the future. Like the- the way that my life has personally changed and the people I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve been so fortunate to have because of the hard work of our team…
Steven: …that’s the type of thing that is, is, you know, it’s mind blowing. Um, you know, on a weekly basis. The things that, um, I’m so fortunate and blessed to be able to do at this point.
David: That’s it for today’s episode of Wish I Knew. You can find and follow the show on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or anywhere you listen to podcasts or at bvp.com/wish-I-knew
And extra special thank you to Steven Galanis for joining us on today’s episode.
Wish I Knew is a podcast by Bessemer Venture Partners.
The show was created by our very own Karen Lee and Christine Deakers.
I’m your host, David Cowan.
Our show is produced by the team at Filia Media.
Our lead producer is Molly Getman.
Our executive producer is Kait Walsh.
We’re engineered by Evan Viola.
Our theme music is by Terry Divine King at Audio Network. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.
And remember, if you want to really be the best in the world at something, it has to be the thing you would do if nobody’s watching.
We’ll see you on our next episode.See Less