The Emerging Business Model Behind Content Creators (Ft. Yes Theory)

By Kate Ward

The Emerging Business Model Behind Content Creators (Ft. Yes Theory)

Whose articles, videos, and social posts do you like? What movements do you follow? Who inspires you? What companies and brands do you interact with regularly? And, most importantly, why?

The reason for asking these questions is simple. There's something deeper in your answers, something to reflect on. Your habits and content of consumption act as a mirror. They tell you a lot about who you are, what you care about, and who you aspire to be - at an almost subconscious level.

And in there lies something important about the future of marketing.

So, let’s talk shop.

The Marketing 101 Model

In an intro to business or marketing class, you’ll likely study the strategic advantage of the big dogs like Apple and Nike. The questions students are often posed with answering is: what has contributed to their respective worldwide recognition and ongoing success?

With Apple and Nike, it’s clear that they each have two important things:

(1) great products, and

(2) great marketing.

Both brands have leveraged their products and marketing to create what economists call an “ecosystem.” As a byproduct, these brand ecosystems created positive signaling effects in some communities and cultures.

You can wear Nike sneakers, sports-bras, hats, t-shirts, and shorts. You can use the Nike Training Club app or attend one of their events in Los Angeles. You can buy an iPhone, iPad, Mac, MacBook, and Apple Watch. Plus, you can subscribe to Apple Music and use Final Cut Pro X and other such Apple-only software integrations. [Bonus if you buy a pair of Beats headphones.]

There is an incentive to buy multiple products because they work together seamlessly. Nike’s clothes match. Apple’s devices sync.

Plus, in most circles, Nike and Apple products are also unknowingly linked to status and respect. This is key. In sneaker gangs and creative cultures, they are THE products to own.

They tell everyone around you that:

That’s the transitive property at work between you, the brand, and their inspiring advertisements. You don’t realize it consciously but you are signaling something about yourself by buying Apple and Nike, not just getting a “high-quality” product (“high-quality” is in quotations because it is, of course, subjective).

The Inverse Model (or as I like to call it, The Yes Theory Model)

If you aren't familiar with our client, Yes Theory, you should be. So stop right now and go watch something on this YouTube channel.

Yes Theory has done the complete inverse of what Nike and Apple did to build a brand. They've focused on building a community, ethos, and an ecosystem first

They didn’t start with an innovative personal computer or running spike. They started with an idea, a small project to help them say:

YES. To overcoming fears. To love. To exploration. To the subtle voice inside. To life. 
They started a non-political, highly-human movement and ideology around that one word. YES.

And they've managed to retain quite a bit of independence in the process. 

When I came on board a few months ago, I was baffled by the numbers - the subscribers, watch time, activations, and revenue. From the outside looking in, people often see these guys as YouTubers or, worse, influencers.

They ask, "They can't be making real money can they??"

But the truth is, Yes Theory is a business. It's just a different kind of business than the ones we are used to seeing and interacting with. But they are proof of a rumbling beneath the surface, a call for something new.

The business model is pretty simple.

When you break it down into the smallest common denominator, Yes Theory focuses on two things:


They create content that people like and connect with the community that’s forming around it. It’s really just that simple.

They build tools and platforms for people to engage with them — such as their 80K+ private Facebook group, which promotes people from all over the world to engage and meet up with each other. [Their message — at scale — has lowered the bar for people to do what would otherwise be terrifying: reaching out to total strangers.]

They design and run their own clothing line called Seek Discomfort which promotes the ideology and philosophy itself. And we hear stories nearly every day that the brand is helping connect people around the world.

Yes Theory is working on diversifying their content strategy - by creating more on platforms like Facebook and Instagram but also working on a book and a podcast.

And when I look to the future, I see an infinite amount of ways to make Yes Theory, not just a household name, but a solid example of a business model that will be taught in future 101 courses.

It won't replace the Nike and Apple model, but it'll certainly disprove many of the assumptions we made about it.

Why This Matters

While many of our ancestors worshiped spiritual-types, the Millennial Generation is the most secular generation to date (likely only to be replaced by future generations). We seek aspirational identities, not in deities as much, as we seek them in real people.

Celebrities. Authors. Entrepreneurs. Athletes. Do-Gooders. Instagram Influencers. You name it.

As David Foster Wallace might say:

“…In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship…”

The thing that brands have been trying to do for generations is to create these aspirational identities through advertisements. They’ve been, in essence, trying to create “brand worship.”

With the emergence of social media and ready-made tools to create content, as Gary Vaynerchuk might say, “everyone can and should be a media company now.”

Every person. Every company. Every movement.

The critical difference is that Yes Theory is selling an idea primarily, not a physical product.

They are selling a lifestyle and an ideology, not through traditional advertising, but through documenting the way they are choosing to live their lives.

This is key.

The kind of business model they employ is nothing new. Companies diversify their revenue streams and build ways for customers to interact with them all the time. Apple and Nike included.

The difference is that it feels personal. It feels real. It feels like a movement you want to be a part of.

Any kind of community that is born of Nike and Apple today starts in a boardroom with a bunch of people in suits (or Jordans) trying to determine how to tell an authentic, transparent, and aspirational story about a brand.

They are brainstorming hashtags and ways to spend their multi-million dollar budgets.

The rest of us, without these privileges and profits, can all can learn from a company like Yes Theory.

They didn’t start with a product.

They started with an idea, created consistent free content around that idea, built a community around that idea, and then, and only then — after the concept was proven and the community was growing organically—did they begin selling products to signal and substantiate a fan’s involvement.

Whereas Nike started with a pair of running shoes, Yes Theory started with a 30-day video series of four friends doing exciting stuff on camera.

This doesn’t mean people will stop building big, traditional companies . They still will.

It just means that there’s also another way.

You can start with the story, the ideology, the philosophy first.

You don't need to wait for a huge investment from a VC firm.

There's almost no overhead involved.

No excuses either.

If you want to create something great...  

You can start here and now.


This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on Medium.