From student to sensation: College students make a living from TikTok

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

In late 2019, young Leon Ondieki made a 15-second parody fitness skit on TikTok that changed the trajectory of his life forever.

Just Ondieki and his friends fooling around in the gym before class catapulted his influencer career into the limelight.

Within two weeks of posting, the video he aimlessly created brought 100,000 followers to his page.

“I woke up the next weekend, and the video was like 5 million views,” Ondieki said. “This is so crazy. I was honestly in disbelief.”

He was on to something.

Now, the 20-year-old junior at the University of Georgia is a full-time influencer with more than 1.6 million followers and a steady stream of income.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

With his steadily growing following and increasing appearances on the app’s “For You Page,” Ondieki uses his platform to shed light on the business side of influencer culture in the hope of inspiring other creators to make videos for profit.

“By speaking about how much I’ve been able to make, what I’ve had to do to get to where I am, and all these things, I’m kind of like putting myself out there so that other Black teenagers can know what’s possible,” Ondieki said.

Influencers generate revenue by creating sponsored content from brand campaigns directly from the app through the TikTok Creator Fund based on views, user engagement, and the frequency of posting content. In an eMarketer report, TikTok is now the third-largest worldwide platform behind Facebook and Instagram.

Ondieki said he can make between $10,000 and $30,000 a month, depending on how many campaigns he runs and how active he is on the app.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

“Anyone I talk to, I will be an advocate to do social media. Whether you’re an art person, a finance person, a cat person, literally it doesn’t matter who you are,” said James Seo, a 24-year-old TikTok influencer who has mentored Ondieki. “As long as you put hard work into your content, you’re posting consistently, and you really have that drive, anyone can do it.”

But not everything has been easy for Ondieki or Seo.

As Ondieki’s follower count increased rapidly, brands began to reach out to him for promotional content for compensation. Still, after chatting with some of his close content creator friends, he realized something wasn’t right.

“I was offered like $300 or $400 for a campaign, and the same campaign would be paying one of my friends like $1,000, even though they have fewer followers,” Ondieki said.

Ondieki is not alone.

In 2021, Black content creators on the platform went on strike to showcase how the app relies on Black creators to power viral trends.

During the strike, creators refrained from creating and sharing choreography to “Thot (expletive),” a song released by hip-hop artist Megan Thee Stallion, in protest of metro Atlanta’s Jalaiah Harmon not receiving credit for her choreography to “Renegade” by the hip-hop artist K-Camp.

Charli D’Amelio, a white social media influencer who earns millions of dollars through sponsorships with more than 138 million followers on TikTok, nearly 10 million on YouTube, and a Hulu docuseries to her name, copied Harmon’s dances without crediting her.

“When Black creators don’t get the recognition for their work, and then bigger white creators come in, they use it, and they gain a lot more followers,” Ondieki said. “They reach a much wider audience, and the Black creators who created the dances don’t receive any recognition, so their accounts aren’t growing. They’re not receiving these brand offers from the content in the For You page.”

Credit: Michael Rozman

Credit: Michael Rozman

Harmon was finally credited and was eventually featured in The New York Times and danced on “Ellen” and at the NBA All-Star Game. But she never profited from her work the way others did.

This experience taught Ondieki the importance of valuing himself as a creator.

“Whenever I run a campaign, I’m not just trying to make the most money and just walk away; I want to put value in my followers,” Ondieki said. “That content which I’m advertising I want to put value into brands that we can develop a longer-term partnership, I want the campaign and the promotion on my platform to benefit the brand, and then I also want it to be something which I’m proud of like posting on the page.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The importance of how to value himself with campaign deals isn’t the only thing the young sensation has learned. Collaboration houses help influencers with a large following expand their audiences by living together, creating daily content, and sharing business and industry guidance. Ondieki saw how being a part of a content house with other influencers propelled their career, but felt there was no place for minority creators like him.

Ondieki wasn’t the only one seeing that this was a problem across platforms.

Seo, who attends the University of Utah and has more than 772,000 followers on TikTok, started diving into the influencer industry as a career about two years ago. However, it wasn’t until six months ago that he began to see significant growth in his content engagement.

@itsjamesseo

She was too excited for that money @triviacrack #uofu #utah #triviacrack #money

♬ original sound - James Seo

Seo has partnered with Nerds, Credit Sesame, and the mobile game app Trivia Crack. His monthly earnings have skyrocketed to $20,000.

Although Seo said he has not experienced discrimination firsthand, the lack of diversity and representation among prominent content creators on the app — particularly in regard to Asian and Black men — concerns him.

“I get hate comments because I’m Asian,” Seo said. “I’m sure there’s an unspoken discrimination, because I’m not like a handsome white guy. I know some people will swipe through.”

Still, Ondieki continues creating content on the app while using his platform to bring transparency and nurture an ecosystem of diverse content creators with tips to help them become successful.

“When I do well, they do well; when they do well, I do well,” Ondieki said. “Minority creators will have the advantage white creators have right now, having that system, having those managers and having these greenhouses by doing this on a small scale, I’ve already seen so much progress.”