Atlanta startup Fanbase jumps into social media

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The AJC talks with Isaac Hayes III about his new venture Fanbbase, a social media platform that pays its content creators. Video by Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne

A few years ago Isaac Hayes III saw a viral video of a Memphis teenager dancing in a Spider-Man costume.

When he reached out to congratulate the so-called “Ghetto Spider-Man,” who had amassed more than 20 million views, the teen said he didn’t know how to handle the attention or figure out how to make money off of his instant fame.

The best content creators use social media to dance, sing and prank their way via videos and photos to millions of views. Some leverage their fame into income, occasionally millions of dollars, through brand sponsorships or working with advertising agencies. But for others, particularly Black creators, it is often a struggle to take advantage of that because of a lack of connections or knowledge of how that world works.

“He was overwhelmed with the popularity he had and wondered how he could capitalize off that,” Hayes III said.

Hayes III, who manages the estate of his father, soul legend Isaac Hayes, sympathized with the teen. In 1976, he watched as his father’s music income disappeared after his label, Memphis-based Stax Records, declared bankruptcy.

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Music producer Isaac Hayes III, son of soul legend Isaac Hayes, saw his father lose control of his music and was inspired to help young Black creators of social media make money on their work. (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Music producer Isaac Hayes III, son of soul legend Isaac Hayes, saw his father lose control of his music and was inspired to help young Black creators of social media make money on their work. (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

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Music producer Isaac Hayes III, son of soul legend Isaac Hayes, saw his father lose control of his music and was inspired to help young Black creators of social media make money on their work. (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

So Hayes III started Fanbase, a social media platform like TikTok or Instagram, that allows creators to get paid faster for their content when viewers buy “likes” worth about a penny apiece and send them to creators, or by having followers pay to subscribe directly to a creator’s content page.

Since its launch, the Atlanta-based app has attracted more than 250,000 users, some of whom are making $300 a month, Hayes III said. His goal is 1 million users by the end of June.

Black social media creators hope to become influencers, by gathering enough followers to attract dollars too — but many are still trying to figure out how to make as much money through their work as their white counterparts.

A 2021 study by a marketing group that studies online influencers noted that there was a “vast racial divide in influencer marketing.” While the racial pay gap between white influencers and those of other colors was 29%, the gap between white and Black influencers was 35%.

More than 45% of the Black influencers surveyed cited “managing the financial process” with agencies and brands as their most challenging issue, compared to only 27% of white influencers.

And, many Black creators claim that non-Black influencers use their work, reap the financial benefits and fame, but fail to give credit to originators.

In one widely reported 2019 case, Jalaiah Harmon, a then 14-year-old Fayetteville, Georgia, native, created a dance called the Renegade and posted it on Funimate and Instagram.

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In this photo released by Warner Bros., talk show host Ellen DeGeneres is seen during a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" with Jalaiah Harmon, the Georgia creator of a dance that went viral on TikTok. (Photo by Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.)

Credit: Michael Rozman

In this photo released by Warner Bros., talk show host Ellen DeGeneres is seen during a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" with Jalaiah Harmon, the Georgia creator of a dance that went viral on TikTok. (Photo by Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.)

Credit: Michael Rozman

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In this photo released by Warner Bros., talk show host Ellen DeGeneres is seen during a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" with Jalaiah Harmon, the Georgia creator of a dance that went viral on TikTok. (Photo by Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.)

Credit: Michael Rozman

Credit: Michael Rozman

It was copied by others without crediting Harmon, including Charli D’Amelio, a white social media influencer who has more than 138 million followers on TikTok, nearly 10 million on YouTube, and a Hulu docuseries to her name. She earns millions of dollars through sponsorships, according to Forbes magazine.

Harmon, on the other hand, was eventually featured in the New York Times and danced on “Ellen” and at the NBA All-Star Game.

“I can empathize with the entire Black community,” Hayes III said. “African American culture is the economic engine of social media. It is what drives innovation, creation, and virality and more often, none of the contributors are getting paid.”

Hayes III initially funded the project out of his own pocket. In 2020, he launched a crowdfunding campaign for Fanbase on StartEngine, raising $3.4 million. Last week he closed on his second round of funding, having raised an additional $2.6 million. Fanbase has over 8,600 investors, including influencers like Kandi Burruss, Snoop Dogg and Charlemagne Tha God.

“We are doing well,” Hayes III said. “The user base has grown, engagement is high and users are making money.”

Amelia Schaffner, director of the Roberto C. Goizueta Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, said companies like Fanbase, are “leapfrogging existing big-tech platforms by empowering users to re-earn their own royalties and income, independently.”

But as a relatively new entry into the market, Fanbase is still in unchartered waters.

About 37% of the world’s population use Facebook, while YouTube and Instagram each have more than 2 billion monthly active users. This week, AdWeek reported that TikTok will reach more than 755 million monthly users.

“They are in competition with us. I am not in competition with them,” Hayes III said. “There is no amount of innovation that Facebook and Instagram can do that captures the youth. Kids want to be on apps that their parents are not on. I look at Fanbase as a successor, as opposed to a competitor.”

When Hayes III pitched Fanbase to Ron Love Sr., the veteran investor was a bit skeptical. Then he brought his son to a meeting with Hayes.

“After my son saw the pitch, he told me to invest because this was going to be big,” said Love, who would not say how much he invested. “With the proper marketing, getting the right people on board and with people becoming more comfortable, I think he is going to do very well with this.”

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Music producer Isaac Hayes III, son of soul legend Isaac Hayes, is founder & CEO of Fanbase, a social media platform in Atlanta. (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Music producer Isaac Hayes III, son of soul legend Isaac Hayes, is founder & CEO of Fanbase, a social media platform in Atlanta. (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

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Music producer Isaac Hayes III, son of soul legend Isaac Hayes, is founder & CEO of Fanbase, a social media platform in Atlanta. (Tyson A. Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

In Fanbase’s spacious and fun headquarters in West Midtown, Hayes III pounces in wearing a black Fanbase T-shirt and jeans. His head is bald and he wears a beard. He sounds, and looks, just like his daddy, who died in 2008.

“He is always on my mind and heart,” said Hayes III, who is in the process of getting back his father’s publishing. “The lessons of ownership, hard work, being deeply connected to his community are things that are naturally a part of who I am. I often say that I don’t have to be my father to be great. l but because of him, I will be great.”