Singing telegrams, paper cards, flower deliveries--they're all so old-fashioned. These days, "I love you," "Happy birthday," and even "Mazel tov!" sound best when they come from a celebrity--anyone from Ice-T to Kevin O'Leary to Stormy Daniels.
That's the business of Cameo, a Chicago-based booking platform for personalized videos created by 10,000-plus celebrities and influencers who charge as much as $2,500 per video. It was founded in 2017 by Devon Townsend, Steven Galanis, and Martin Blencowe, as a way for people to receive glad tidings from their favorite YouTubers, Vine stars, and the like.
Today, A-listers are scrambling for a piece of the action as Cameo dispatches 1,000 salutations daily, on average. One customer in Chicago even owes his rock-and-roll marriage proposal to Cameo: It helped him establish a relationship with Asking Alexandria guitarist Ben Bruce, who invited him to propose to his girlfriend backstage at one of the band's shows in January of 2018.
While Cameo declined to disclose revenue, Townsend says the site has fulfilled more than 200,000 bookings to date. The company keeps 25 percent of each booking transaction, which is its sole revenue stream. It has pulled in $15.8 million in funding from firms like Lightspeed Venture Partners and Chicago Ventures.
Not bad for a company with a rather inauspicious beginning.
An early pivot
On March 15, 2017, an unlikely trio huddled around a computer in Venice Beach, California: Townsend, a young software engineer from Middletown, Connecticut, was joined by Blencowe--an NFL agent at the time--and Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cassius Marsh. They sent out a tweet, which Marsh rapidly retweeted:
Townsend opened Google Analytics, waiting for a traffic surge to overwhelm his nascent website's servers. Nothing.
Marsh freaked out and left, his Twitter replies filling with accusations of selling out. Three hours later, a blip finally appeared on the Google Analytics map in Renton, Washington--and a man responded to the tweet:
OMG how? My daughter is his biggest fan!!!
-- Eric Land (@vaderland) March 15, 2017
For $20, Marsh recorded a shaky 24-second video for Land's 16-year-old daughter, who burst into tears of joy. Land recorded the reaction and sent it back. Townsend, not a sports fan, was floored. "OK," he said. "Let's really start building this thing out."
In the process, Townsend, now 28, decided the company should branch out from athletes to internet celebrities. He'd left his job as a Microsoft program manager in May 2014 to pursue viral fame as a Vine comedian, and before launching Cameo, had grown his fanbase to 500,000 followers. He knew firsthand the kind of pull that niche celebrities could bring.
As a test just weeks before the Marsh episode, Townsend set up a Cameo profile charging $3 per video for his friend and fellow Duke University fraternity brother, Cody Ko--a comedian who now has more than two million YouTube followers. Townsend also set up his own profile, charging $1 per video.
The pair tweeted out the links en route from Ko's house in Calgary, Alberta, to a ski house in Whitefish, Montana. By the time they arrived, they had 20 bookings and were surprisingly enjoying the "work" of recording the videos. Townsend started pitching Cameo to other influencers he knew.
Rapid growth (and its challenges)
The focus on influencers has been key to Cameo's success, explains Chicago Ventures associate Jackson Jhin: Athletes and movie stars tend to have large-but-unengaged fan bases, while YouTube influencers have fans who often come back for more. Plus, they're already professionals at making short-form personalized content--which helped build Cameo's brand to the point where it could organically attract celebrities.
Attracting more A-listers hasn't always been a good thing. In 2018, for example, NFL legend Brett Favre was duped into reading coded hate speech from a $500 Cameo request. The Cameo team immediately got on a plane to sit down with Favre. Within 48 hours, Townsend, Cameo's CTO, had written code for a hate-speech-screening program. Galanis, the CEO, emailed Cameo's talent roster to explain the situation. The damage control worked: Only one celebrity quit, according to Jhin, and it wasn't even Favre.
Those early challenges have given the Cameo team confidence to shift into fast-growth mode. Galanis plans to expand the team to 115 employees by the end of the year, up from 61 now. He also hopes to add tens of thousands of celebrities to Cameo's catalogue--both domestically and internationally. Blencowe, now Cameo's executive vice president, opened a London office in March as a hub to access the rest of Europe. His recruiting focus: soccer stars. Townsend hints at future revenue streams, which could include celebrity meetups or two-way communication channels.
In other words, at least for now, this is the former Vine star's dream job. "I'm having the time of my life, and selling the company for any amount of money would not make me happier," Townsend says. "I would just have a lot of money, and I would be bored, and I would probably try to start a company that's very, very similar to Cameo."