September 28, 2022

From Los Angeles to Silicon Valley, a trend has emerged among social media influencers and startup founders alike: move into a mansion with ten or so co-workers, work day and night together to build fame and fortune, and hope that your new roommates they will do their dishes. But across the country in Atlanta, a fast-growing tech hub, a group of Black creators is reimagining that idea. What if a group of influencers could actually be collaborative, instead of feeding a depressing Netflix reality show?

An acquaintance collective influence, Collab Crew (formerly known as Collab Crib) has had a tumultuous few months since TechCrunch caught up with them at VidCon. Founder Keith Dorsey resigned to focus on his mental health, appointing Robert Dean III (@robiiiworld) to take the lead. Why change the name? Unfortunately, it’s no longer a “cradle” – their house in Atlanta was sold, so they couldn’t renew the lease.

Now, the Collab Crew is trying to make the most of the situation. Instead of living together outside of Atlanta in Fayetteville, Khamyra Sykes (@queenkhamyra), Chad Epps (@chadio), Kaelyn Kastle (@kaelynkastle), Tracy Billingsley (@traybills) and other partners start Collab Studio ATL. Minutes from downtown Atlanta, Collab Studio ATL describes itself as “a technology-driven one-stop shop for content creators, HBCU students, and young entrepreneurs to achieve their business goals.”

At just sixteen years old, Sykes has already been honored at Forbes 30 under 30 list along with other members of the Collab crew Theo Wisseh and the Castle. But since she’s so young, she hasn’t lived in the collective house. Now, she’s excited to work out of the studio, which is more specifically dedicated to business than a home that doubles as a living space.

“My company Putta Crown on it has the opportunity to have a place to take classes, shoot commercials and more,” Sykes told TechCrunch via email. “I feel like the studio has the potential to be a great place for creators like me to thrive. Productivity in the studio is much better than at home for work and content.”

Moving away from the “influencer house” model, Collab Crew can also expand to include more BIPOC creators and entrepreneurs in the Georgia capital.

Currently, the studio is partially funded by partnerships with Monster Energy and Snap’s 523 program, which supports small content companies and creators from underrepresented groups. There is an application process and fee for members to join Collab Studio ATL, but the group hopes those costs will be subsidized by partners in the future — they say the application process is more about assessing an entrepreneur or creator’s needs and what services require from the space. The membership price varies depending on the resources the applicant seeks, whether it’s marketing, help connecting with potential brand partners, or use of studio space.

At launch, members estimate that a day’s access to the workspace will cost $25, while studio use will run between $150 and $250 per hour. Depending on how often a member wants to book the studio, monthly fees will range from $85 to $250.

Collab Studio ATL says the goal with its application process is not to turn people away, but to make sure new members are a good fit in the community. They also plan to build a professional music studio and sound stage. At the launch, core members of the Collab Crew welcomed collaborators such as filmmakers Jiron Griffindirector of creative department Elijah Brown and journalist Brandy Merriweather.

The team says it was inspired by similar community-oriented tech incubators in Atlanta like this one Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs, Center PROPEL and Gathering pointbut Collab Studio will focus more specifically on the entertainment industry.

Image Credits: Robiiiworld (Brandy Merriweather via BStarPR)

The new studio could help energize a group of creators that have succeeded despite serious obstacles.

Black influencers and startup founders face systemic barriers to growth. In the same way that Black founders are unfairly overlooked in venture capital, Black content creators have had stolen work and earn fewer brand deals by white creators, studies have shown.

In a documentary on Collab Crew, Kastle even said that she had dyed half of her hair pink because she felt the TikTok algorithm was more likely to show her videos when she saw brighter colors. Since TikTok’s algorithm is so vague, it’s hard to confirm this specific claim, but it makes sense that Kastle is concerned about how it could be unfairly oppressed across platforms — as it has in the past.

For example, amid racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, TikTok posts with hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd appeared to have 0 views. TikTok later apologized for what it called “technical error,” but Black creators still voice concerns that they are being oppressed on the platform. A year later, Ziggy Tyler showed in a TikTok video how the TikTok creator market wouldn’t let him say “Black lives matter” but would let him say “supporting white supremacy.” Once again, TikTok he apologized. (The platform claimed an error occurred because Tyler’s post also included the word “public,” which contained the letters “die” — combined with the word “Black,” which triggered TikTok’s automated content moderation.)

We have to work five times harder to get to the minimum on any platform,” said Dean, a 31-year-old director. He and his younger colleagues have all experienced the disappointment of finding out that their white peers were earning more than them for the same work.

“I worked with one of my friends who happens to be white and we were talking because we were both part of the same campaign […] and they were clearly getting paid more than me,” said Epps, a 23-year-old with over 7 million TikTok followers. “It’s very sad to me that Black creators and the Black community are underrepresented and underpaid. But again, it adds fuel to my fire to keep pushing harder and harder.”

Image Credits: Queen Khamyra (Brandy Merriweather via BStarPR)

ONE recent report in the Washington Post supports claims that black creators were underpaid. It found that Triller, a TikTok competitor, had specifically recruited black creators as partners but failed to honor its commitments to pay them, the creators said. Because Triller withheld payment, some creators said they lost their homes and fell into debt — but Triller still plans to go public via an IPO in the fall, the report noted. As part of their deals, some creators—including members of the Collab Crew—were to receive a financial stake in the company. However, for now, it remains unclear whether this will take place.

When asked about their reaction to Triller’s damning investigation, the Collab Crew emailed TechCrunch a statement, but declined to reveal if or how its members were affected. The Collab Crew said they hope creators who haven’t received the money they were promised can be paid.

“Executed collaboration, moral integrity, genuine ethical business practices, and consistent investment in BIPOC creators and businesses could finally bridge the gap,” statement he said.

The idea of ​​”consistent investment” is key to how Collab Crew wants to run its studio, offering long-term support to its members to grow. Companies like TikTok, Meta, YouTube and Snapchat have launched programs that provide funding and resources to select black creators, and that quick capital is helpful — but Dean believes the inequality runs deeper on these platforms.

“Some of these programs are nice, but it’s like, what’s after this? Some of these white creators were going to be right for the algorithm,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s hard for black creators to even get started on YouTube, more so than the average white creator.”

Whether they live in the same house or work together in their new studio, the Collab Crew has maintained the same strategy to give Black creators the opportunities they deserve: collaboration and mutual support.

“We all teach each other […] We have strong platforms and we have weak platforms, but with all of us together, everyone is going to be great,” Sykes explained.

“Instead of other teams, where it’s every man for himself, it’s really more like a team effort,” Dean said.

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