- Insider asked 11 top venture-capital investors which media startups they’re bullish on for 2021.
- We told each VC to pick two companies, including one they weren’t invested in.
- Here were the picks, which reflect trends like livestream shopping, newsletters, and sports betting.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Audio-only chat room apps. Twitch livestreaming tools. Virtual events platforms.
It’s hard to look at this year’s high-flying media startups without seeing the many ways that life in a global pandemic has transformed the media world.
Some upstarts, like the audio company Clubhouse, launched just as shelter-in-place policies were put into effect in the US and abroad. The app has since garnered millions of users and raised over $100 million from investors like Andreessen Horowitz. Other businesses, like Fable, the social-reading app that Padmasree Warrior launched this year, are creating new online communities to help people connect when they can’t gather in person.
Insider asked 11 venture capitalists from firms including The Chernin Group, Redpoint Ventures, and CRV, which media startups they thought would surge this year as the economy recovers from the pandemic and investors try to assess its long-term effects. We asked the investors to pick two companies, including one they weren’t invested in.
Some said they were betting on startups that mixed media with commerce, like Popshop Live and The Landing. Others spotlighted companies focused on social issues or mental wellness, such as A Kids Book About and Fable. A few were bullish on media companies close to sports gaming and gambling, and several are betting on businesses that bring in-person experiences online.
Here are their 19 picks, listed in alphabetical order:
A Kids Book About
Total funding: $1 million, according to the company.
What it does: A Kids Book About publishes children’s books on tough topics like racism, cancer, depression, and climate change.
Why VCs like it: Jelani Memory, a Black entrepreneur and father with a blended family, entered the publishing business after writing a book on racism for his six children. He wanted to find a way for the family to talk about topics like race without it feeling taboo.
A Kids Book About launched in October 2019 with 12 books and now has 39, Memory said. Most of the company’s revenue comes from selling books directly to consumers. It also sells subscriptions. And the company recently expanded into podcasts for kids.
Christie Pitts, a general partner at Backstage Capital, is not an investor in A Kids Book About, but said she’s watching the startup because it is finding new ways to connect with kids.
“We like to make media investments targeted at overlooked audiences,” Pitt said. “This one is creating content for kids and I think there’s just a huge amount of white space here … There are not that many companies that are iterating on this space, and the ones that set themselves apart meet kids where they are.”
Memory said A Kids Book About strives to tell stories that talk up to kids, not down to them. It looks for authors with distinct voices, and works with them to craft a first-person narrative around a given topic, usually completing a first draft of a manuscript in a single day.
The Action Network
Total funding: Not disclosed. Last raised $17.5 million in a Series B round, according to Crunchbase.
What it does: The Action Network is a sports-media brand focused on gamblers. It offers news; analysis; and tools like bet tracking, live odds, and predictions.
Why VCs like it: The Action Network was created in 2017 by The Chernin Group with a goal of covering sports gambling like it was a professional sport.
Mike Kerns, cofounder and partner of The Chernin Group, said the expansion of online sports betting into more US states could be a boon for The Action Network.
“They’re really well poised for a big a 2021,” Kerns said. “The big thing is that the percentage of the US that will have legal sports betting is projected to increase significantly.”
States including Michigan and Virginia rolled out online sports betting last year, and lawmakers in strategically important states like New York are also considering introducing it.
The Action Network makes money by selling subscriptions to its audience and charging sportsbooks affiliate fees when it links and refers customers to those platforms. That latter revenue stream, in particular, relies on growth in the US sports-betting market.
Total funding: Unannounced seed round.
What it does: Anyone is an audio app (currently invite-only) where users can have five-minute conversations with strangers who give or receive advice either for free or for a flat fee they set themselves.
Why VCs like it: Audio-only apps are on the rise. The internet is abuzz about Clubhouse and copycat products popping up on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Anyone offers a unique take on the trend by limiting calls to five minutes (so they don’t drag on) and creating an opportunity for users to make money from networking calls.
Ollie Forsyth, global community manager at the VC firm Antler, said his company made an early investment in Anyone, describing the app as “Wikipedia meets audio.”
“I am particularly excited about this space due to the rise of the audio economy,” he told Insider. “These types of platforms allow creators to have an additional source of income.”
Total funding: Not disclosed.
What it does: BlackOakTV is a streaming service built for Black audiences, who are largely underrepresented in TV and film.
Why VCs like it: BlackOakTV was founded by former YouTube employee Uzo Ometu to create content for Black audiences.
The Harlem-based startup, which launched its subscription-based service in February, has raised funding from investors including Backstage Capital and The W Fund.
Christie Pitts, general partner at Backstage Capital, said she invested in BlackOakTV in part because of its focus on creators. The company is signing deals with influencers who have large and loyal followings in the hopes of attracting those audiences to the platform, similar to the way Issa Rae’s HBO show “Insecure” built on her existing web following.
Ometu said BlackOakTV has deals with creators including comedy collective Dormtainment (1.1 million YouTube followers) to create programming exclusively for the service, which has both exclusive and non-exclusive content. Most of BlackOakTV’s content deals are licensing pacts for a specific period of time and creators retain ownership of their content, Ometu said. The company also plans to experiment with more methods of connecting viewers with its content, potentially including free forms of distribution.
BlackOakTV’s business model was inspired by Ometu’s seven years at Google and YouTube, where he worked on media and content partnerships. He said he saw that Black creators were increasingly getting the “short end of the stick” when it came to monetization and amplification, and extending their brands off-platform to increase their revenue and reach.
Total funding: $15 million, according to the company.
What it does: Caravan is a venture studio that builds consumer brands tied to pop culture and entertainment.
Why VCs like it: Caravan, formerly called Creative Labs, was founded in 2017 by venture capitalist Leonard Brody, former Zynga and EA Sports exec Pauline Moller, and execs at talent agency CAA.
Anis Uzzaman at Pegasus Tech Ventures, which is an investor in Caravan, thinks the company will have a breakout year because of the overall growth in direct-to-consumer brands and the startup’s celebrity connections.
“[Caravan] has a very exciting pipeline of projects they plan to release that we are really excited about,” Uzzaman said.
Last year, Caravan launched a fitness app called Fit52 with country-music star Carrie Underwood. It also created in 2019 a luxury cat-food brand with pet influencer Nala Cat (4.3 million Instagram followers), another client of CAA.
Caravan said it has several celebrity-cofounded businesses set to launch this year.
The company is also opening an office in Tokyo that will focus on the Japanese market, adding to its operations in Vancouver and Los Angeles. It will work with animation and entertainment company Dream Link Entertainment in Japan.
Total funding: $110 million, according to Crunchbase.
What it does: Clubhouse is an audio-only social app where users meet up in chat rooms to listen to talks, hear comedy stand-up routines, and partake in a slew of other audio-focused activities.
Why VCs like it: Clubhouse launched about a year ago, joining a crop of fast-growing startups that have boomed during the pandemic. Its app offers another way for at-home consumers to socialize in groups while in-person gatherings are on hold.
Clubhouse remains invite-only, but the company already has millions of users. It’s raised over $100 million from investors like Andreeson Horowitz.
The company has faced some growing pains as it wrestles with content-moderation issues that arise from live audio content. Its app was recently banned in China after it became a hub for political dissent. It also faces new competition as big tech platforms like Twitter and Facebook are working on their own Clubhouse-copycat products.
Sarah Cannon, a partner at Index Ventures, said she’s a fan of Clubhouse because “there’s a need for a social-media company that’s built around deeper connections and real conversations.”
While Cannon isn’t currently an investor in the company, she thinks the app could grow into an educational platform once it expands its user base.
“Clubhouse will become a place for learning, for serendipity, and for truly global community building,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for people, not just influencers, to be heard.”
Read more: The unofficial story of how Clubhouse founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth failed their way to a $1 billion app
Total funding: $9.7 million in seed funding as of August 2020, according to Crunchbase.
What it does: Commonstock is a social network for stock traders. Users can link their external brokerage accounts from companies like Robinhood and Coinbase, and connect with other investors.
Why VCs like it: Mike Kerns at The Chernin Group said Commonstock is having a moment this year on the heels of the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets’ momentous GameStop run.
Kerns, who is not an investor in Commonstock, said he’s keeping an eye on the company because of its potential to attract the investment communities that are already gathering on social platforms like Reddit and Twitter.
He said Commonstock introduces some sense of accountability into meme-stock investing. The platform creates leaderboards of top investors based on the data from users’ linked brokerage accounts, and allows people to see how investors on the platform are performing over time.
“Users can’t lie,” Kerns said. “There are ways to verify if you’re a successful investor.”
Commonstock, which was founded by former Google exec David McDonough, launched its platform in beta in August 2020. The company said it aims to improve “financial health” by encouraging research and discussion about potential investments.
Total funding: $7.25 million, according to the company.
What it does: Fable, which launched in January, is a social-reading platform where users can create private book clubs, read and share notes on ebooks, and access curated book recommendations.
Why VCs like it: Padmasree Warrior, a former top exec at tech companies including Cisco, Motorola, and Nio, founded Fable to help bring book clubs into the digital age and make it easier for people to find titles they’re interested in.
The app, which also touts the mental-wellness benefits of of reading, aims to create a community around reading.
Fable generates revenue by selling subscriptions, which users need to access most of the app’s features like the reading clubs and ebooks. Ebooks can also be purchased for a fee through the company’s website and sent to the app. And Fable sells corporate memberships for companies that want to offer the service as a benefit to employees.
Investor Annie Kadavy, a general partner at Redpoint Ventures, thinks Fable will take off in 2021 more people focus on mental wellness, and turn to reading to supplement other experiences that are still limited amid the pandemic.
“Reading is an exercise in empathy and stories take us to new places,” Kadavy said. “As we have all been forced to limit travel and socializing this past year, I believe more people are reading on their own as well as looking for community around the shared experience of reading.”
Total funding: $2.5 million in seed funding, according to the company.
What it does: The Landing is a social-commerce platform built around home design, where users can create mood boards with products from brand partners.
Why VCs like it: Interest in home improvement has accelerated amid the pandemic, as people splurge on or just fantasize about sprucing up their living spaces.
The Landing, which first launched in 2019 as a service to help people move and design their new spaces, pivoted in 2020 to jump on this trend. The startup, founded by CEO Ellie Buckingham and COO Miri Buckland, announced last month that it had raised $2.5 million in seed funding and was re-launching as an online platform for home design.
The Landing now allows users to build mood boards that feature real products and price tags from the company’s brand partners. The company also plans to introduce more social features to improve product discovery within the service, TechCrunch reported.
Annie Kadavy, a general partner at Redpoint Ventures, said she thinks The Landing is well positioned for 2021 because of the increased interest in home design and online communities.
“Given everyone has been at home for the last year, more eyes have turned to home edits/redesign with more of a focus on the community aspect of design then ever before,” said Kadavy, who is not an investor in The Landing. “I think there’s a big growth spurt on the horizon.”
Total funding: $1.5 million, according to the company.
What it does: Moment House is a tech platform that enables music artists to host live virtual concerts.
Why VCs like it: Founded in 2019, Moment House is one of several livestreaming platforms like Yoop and Kiswe that work with music artists to host virtual concerts.
One advantage Moment House has is its close relationships with artists and music industry insiders. It counts Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, and Palm Tree Crew Investments (Kygo and Myles Shear) among its investors.
Besides offering livestreaming tools, the company supports ticketing, merch sales, geofencing shows to a particular region, and VIP ticket offerings like fan meet-and-greets.
“It may seem obvious as kind of a COVID trend to let artists keep making money through events and concerts in a way that the moderation, the monetization, the experience, is so much better than Zoom,” Olivia Moore, an investor at the VC firm CRV, told Insider. “But also, even post COVID, there’s so many times when a fan is just unable to go see an artist in person. Maybe they’re too young, Maybe they don’t have enough money. Maybe they can’t travel. And Moment House provides a really special way for artists to reach people over the internet which we love and we think will be a lasting trend.”
Total funding: $4 million, according to the company.
What it does: Muxy builds extensions and overlays that brands and video game streamers can add to Twitch livestreams to make their game play more interactive for fans.
Why VCs like it: Founded in 2014, Muxy was one of the first companies to build custom overlays for Twitch as part of the platform’s extensions program. The company worked with gaming influencer Ninja to build a custom streaming experience for a New Year’s Eve event in 2018. Other notable clients include the NBA 2K League, Overwatch League, Bethesda, and Pokémon. One of the projects the company worked on, a choose-your-own adventure Twitch series called “Artificial,” won an Emmy in 2019 for “outstanding innovation in interactive media.”
Benjamin Grubbs, founder and CEO of the creator-focused VC firm Next 10 Ventures, which is an investor in Muxy, said the startup offers a new way for Twitch streamers to make more money.
“The impact on monetization for the streamer and game studio is huge,” he told Insider.
Total funding: $5.5 million, according to the company.
What it does: Players’ Lounge is a matchmaker for gamers who want to play against others for money.
Why VCs like it: Players’ Lounge sits at the intersection of trends including the growth of video games and esports. The startup made headlines in 2019 when hip-hop star Drake invested in it.
Sharp Alpha Advisors founder Lloyd Danzig, who is also an investor and a regular user, thinks the next few years will be big for Players’ Lounge because of the increasingly social nature of video games, as well as the growth in esports and sports betting.
“The combination of post-Covid behavioral shifts, simultaneous to the growth in sports betting mixed with gamification in media, I think makes it an amazing time to be a peer-to-peer video-game wagering network,” Danzig said.
Founded in 2014 by Austin Woolridge, Zach Dixon, and Dan Delaney, Players’ Lounge says it aims to give more people the opportunity to make money by playing video games. A gamer who wants to play Call of Duty against someone for money can get matched up on Players’ Lounge with another player of their skill level, connect with that user on gaming networks such as the Playstation Network, and win prize money through the startup’s app, for example.
The startup told Team Whistle it paid out $45 million in 2020.
Players’ Lounge focuses on skill-based games so it’s not considered gambling in the eyes of US regulators the way luck-based games like slots or roulette are. Still, Insider has reported on concerns that kids could sneak onto platforms like Players’ Lounge.
Total funding: $2 million, according to the company.
What it does: PickUp is building a platform to make sports predictions based on news headlines for a chance win in-app prizes.
Why VCs like it: PickUp is trying to create a new way for publishers to engage and monetize sports fans, and cash in on the growing market for sports gambling.
In recent years, sports-media brands from Fox Sports to Barstool Sports have backed or launched free-to-play apps designed to gamify sports. In some cases, those apps are building valuable databases of potential sports gamblers that the companies can monetize in other ways.
Lloyd Danzig, founder and managing partner of Sharp Alpha Advisors, said PickUp is unique in that users can make predictions on sports topics such as how many points NBA player Steph Curry will score in his next game, based on news headlines from a range of publishing partners.
Danzig is not invested in PickUp, but he thinks it has potential because sports leagues, teams, marketers, and betting providers are all trying to figure out how to engage fans when they can’t gather at games or bars due to the pandemic.
“I think especially in 2021 where the competition for sports fans’ attention has been turned totally on its head … everyone is trying to figure out how this highly valued customer segment going to consume sports news and content,” Danzig said. “It’s a very interesting year to demonstrate that gamification drives value and engagement.”
PickUp, which raised funding from Drive By DraftKings, KB Partners, and Connetic Ventures, said it was working with more than 30 publishers, including USA Today’s MMAJunkie vertical, Last Word on Sports, and The Lead. Founders Dan Healy and Chris Meisner also hired content leads from companies including Bleacher Report and The Athletic.
Total funding: Not disclosed. The company announced it raised $4.5 million in July 2020 and said it recently closed a Series A round.
What it does: Popshop Live is an online-shopping and livestreaming app.
Why VCs like it: Popshop Live is tapping into a livestreaming shopping trend that has been booming in Asia, thriving as the pandemic hampered in-person shopping.
The startup is like TikTok meets QVC for younger generations, said Anis Uzzaman, general partner of Pegasus Tech Ventures. It’s an ecommerce platform where brands and sellers stream video shows to engage shoppers and sell products.
Although Uzzaman is not invested in Popshop, he said the Los Angeles-based startup, founded by Dan Dan Li, could bring that shopping experience to audiences in the US and other parts of the world.
“Popshop is a truly unique platform, combining the engaging features of a Triller or TikTok with the easy to buy ability from a QVC or Home Shopping Network,” Uzzaman said. “Gen Z and Millennial generations do not have this fun and easy-to-use shopping experience, like Popshop, resulting in a significant opportunity to grow not only in the US but also worldwide.”
Popshop’s investors include Floodgate, Abstract Ventures, and Benchmark Capital.
Total funding: $30 million, according to the company.
What it does: Rally lets digital creators and brands create their own cryptocurrencies that fans can buy as a collectible, a show of support, or a financial asset on its own.
Why VCs like it: Rally presents a new way for digital creators to earn revenue directly from their fans. Digital-only currencies have momentum, and Rally’s Creator Coin business presents a way for digital stars like Twitch streamers to capitalize on the trend.
“The founder of Rally is an accomplished entrepreneur, having previously cofounded and sold gaming company Kabam,” Next 10 Ventures’ Benjamin Grubbs, who is not invested in the company, told Insider. “Through blockchain technology, creators will be able to verifiably identify their biggest fans and provide personalized rewards.”
Run The World
Total funding: $15 million, according to the company.
What it does: Run The World is a virtual events platform where companies, media brands, and organizations host digital conferences, talks, and other forms of online social gathering.
Why VCs like it: As most in-person events shut down during the pandemic, platforms like Run The World and Zoom have become hubs for social interaction. TEDx, TechCrunch, and Nasdaq are among the companies and organizations that have hosted recent events on Run The World. The company is backed by VC investors like Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund and celebrities like Kevin Hart and Will Smith.
Antler’s Ollie Forsyth said he isn’t an investor in Run The World, but he uses the platform to host events for a VC group he manages called “Makers of VC.”
“[Run The World] allows micro and larger communities to scale their interactions via their various features such as the Cocktail Party tool where you can have one-to-one conversations with members inside your community that you might not have met before,” Forsyth told Insider.
Read more: Run The World just raised another $10.8 million from a host of high-profile investors as other startups struggle. Here’s what spurred Founders Fund’s Keith Rabois to make his first remote investment.
Total funding: $8.6 million in seed financing, according to the company.
What it does: Ryff built technology to dynamically insert products into videos, bringing the concept of product placements into the digital age.
Why VCs like it: Founded in 2018 by Roy Taylor (who previously ran Nvidia Europe), Ryff’s tech opens up a new revenue stream for digital media companies. The company can virtually superimpose a brand’s logo or image into a scene, whether that’s on an unmarked soda can or a blank billboard in the background.
The company said it recently signed deals with Coca Cola, Peroni, Diageo, Intel and ad-holding company WPP to use its platform, Placer.
“For content owners, networks, and streaming platforms, Ryff offers a way to monetize old content,” said Marlon Nichols, managing general partner at MaC Venture Capital, which is an investor in Ryff. “Streaming platforms are on the rise and will not go away, and Ryff offers the industry a model that properly scales and adds flexibility.”
Total funding: $17.4 million, according to Crunchbase.
What it does: Substack is a newsletter platform that helps writers build a following by posting free or paid content for subscribers.
Why VCs like it: Founded in 2017, Substack has gained steam in the past year as a group of well-known journalists like Casey Newton and Glenn Greenwald have left roles at traditional media companies and started their own subscriber-only newsletters.
The company, which is funded by prominent investors like Andreessen Horowitz, has created an opportunity for writers to earn direct revenue without relying on advertising or the backing of a publisher masthead. It’s also received pushback for how it handles content moderation, including allowing a newsletter on election fraud to remain on its platform without a fact-checking disclaimer.
Justine Moore, an investor at the VC firm CRV, uses Substack as a tool for the newsletter she cowrites with her sister and coworker Olivia.
“We are not an investor in Substack, but have been users of the product for a while,” Moore said. “It makes the creation process really easy. It also sources new readers for you, which is like the distribution side, which is very helpful.”
“We don’t monetize [on Substack], but monetization is pretty straightforward and being able to implement a paywall around different types of content we think is really powerful,” she added.
- Substack creators are making 6 figures off newsletters. Here’s how they built their audiences from scratch.
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Total funding: $16 million, according to the company.
What it does: Superplastic is a media company and toy maker that uses Instagram and TikTok to promote its high-end toy and apparel line with a set of virtual social-media stars.
Why VCs like it: Launched in 2018, Superplastic works with a team of artists and animators to create story lines for its cat- and bunny-like characters on TikTok and Instagram. It then sells toy versions of the characters on its website and through partnerships with a few retailers. The company told Insider that it sold millions of dollars worth of toys and apparel last year, and more than $10 million worth of products since its founding. The company hopes to bring its characters to more traditional forms of media like TV and film in the coming months.
Superplastic has raised funding from a series of VC firms and celebrity investors including Google Ventures (GV), Craft Ventures, and Justin Timberlake.
“Our belief is that if Walt Disney was founding a company today, he would create not just animated characters but full-fledged virtual celebrities with a presence on social media,” Bill Lee, the general partner at Craft Ventures who led Superplastic’s Series A fundraising round, told Insider. “The availability of these new channels creates the potential for a founder like Paul to create a valuable entertainment, licensing, and IP brand.”
Read more: How a media startup is using animated influencers on Instagram and TikTok to drive millions of dollars in toy and apparel sales
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