An Interview with Li Jin

We sat down with Li Jin — co-host of Means of Creation, founder of Atelier Ventures, and an a16z alum — to talk about the passion economy and how she’s leveraged writing to accelerate her career. Below are some edited excerpts from the conversation.

Let’s go all the way back to college. At Harvard, you were a writer for The Crimson and an editor for The Harvard Voice. What did you learn by contributing to and running those publications?

My first experience publishing online was way before Harvard. I grew up blogging and writing almost daily. But the best preparation for the writing I do now is when I was in high school. My side hustle was submitting to and winning essay competitions. The prize money could be anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand dollars, which was better than making minimum wage at a mall job.

Writing at The Crimson was my first experience in news journalism. It was great practice for producing high-quality writing every day. I would spend all day reporting and then sit down to write at four-thirty and have thirty minutes to get a polished piece done. If my piece wasn’t done by five o’clock, it wouldn’t make it into the next day’s paper.

How did you end up honing in on the passion economy and why are you drawn to it as an investment thesis?

I was influenced by the fact that I’ve been creating online for a long time myself through blogging, writing fanfiction, and participating in online forums. Those experiences sparked my interest in how technology could democratize access to different career paths and income-earning opportunities for creators.

In the past, if you had a very niche interest, you were limited by how many people you knew in real life who were also interested in the same thing. Now creators can turn what they love to do into their livelihood, which wasn’t really possible before the internet.

You wrote a piece called “100 True Fans”, which was a new take on Kevin Kelly’s famous “1,000 True Fans” piece. How do you think about identifying a niche where there are 100 people who would spend $1,000 a year each?

It comes down to putting out work and content on the internet, seeing what resonates with people, and then growing outward from there. Creators can use different platforms as testbeds for experimentation.

I use Twitter for this with my writing. I tweet about an idea to see if it resonates. If it has legs, I’ll convert it into a longer post. Through this type of process, creators can amass followers and find the intersection between their interests and those of the broader world.

On my podcast Means of Creation, I talked about taking it one step further and having just one true fan. I did an NFT drop recently and someone bought it for $25,000. If you have one person who intensely loves your work and wants to support it and purchase it, that person is potentially really price-insensitive. I call this the cult fan.

It harkens back to the Renaissance. Back then, artists had a small number of patrons who supported their creative output. Crypto unlocks a similar type of patronage because it introduces ownership into digital media. Ownership has an emotional resonance for supporters and fans in a way that access alone doesn’t.

How have you leveraged writing as an accelerating force for the work that you do?

I share most of my writing and ideas for free. I use it to drive top-of-funnel awareness of who I am and to help me build relationships with founders. Writing has this powerful quality: the best writing is often evergreen. It's very viral. It can reach a ton of people and it's a way to build relationships at scale.

I also have two paid newsletters. One is Means of Creation, which is part of the Every bundle, where Nathan Baschez and I break down industry topics in the news related to the creator and passion economy. I also jokingly call my LP updates a paid newsletter. It’s probably the most expensive newsletter in the world!

What are some of the other business models you find intriguing for people who create online?

I think crypto and the new business models it enables are fascinating. Crypto is powerful because it unlocks financial alignment between the creator and the investor.

Right now, if you’re a fan of a creator, you can support them through donations or buying their products. But there’s no mechanism to participate in the financial upside of the creator. If you believe in a company, there’s a mechanism to invest in that company. I think the same will happen for creators.

Are you seeing a world in which folks who’ve already had some success and traction help support and bring up the next wave of creators?

When someone is an independent creator, no one has a vested interest in their success. No one is there to provide seed capital. They have a network of other creators they’re collaborating with, but they aren’t able to share in each other’s success.

But it happens in other industries. I talk to startup founders all the time who tell me they pool together equity in their respective companies with their friends. Their friends are investing in each other and have exposure to each other’s success. Creators are analogous to that.

What other trends are you putting your investment money behind with Atelier Ventures?

The mission of the fund is to democratize access to work, income opportunities, and make the world more equitable. One initiative that I just announced is training creators to become angel investors.

Creators are the ones who are contributing value to these platforms with their content. But they only have the ability to create their own business on the platform. They don't have any potential upside in the underlying platform itself.

Long term, I believe creators are going to be some of the most sought-after investors and partners for companies versus financial investors. The value should flow to whoever is generating the value.

Is the word “creator” synonymous with “artist” these days?

I think of creators as people whose fame or influence originates from online channels. Artists can have no online presence whatsoever.

And creators are creating things online with the intention of having them consumed by an audience. Whereas artists are generally more motivated by the intrinsic satisfaction of being creative. They're okay with making a painting even if no one sees it, just for the joy of painting and creative self-expression.

To learn more about Li Jin, you can follow her on Twitter.