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How a Canadian entrepreneur made his Estonian dream with a creator-economy startup

Moving from a small Canadian town to Estonia's capital, Avery Schrader builds an influencer matchmaking platform Modash and argues that it is a perfect place for that kind of venture.

Avery Schrader (25) came to Estonia five years ago from a small town in Canada, still in his late teens. Together with Hendry Sadrak, they created Modash, which connects brands with influencers. The company raised a $2M seed round in 2022 and now employs an international team of 25 and lists about 300 million content creators worldwide. Schareder himself landed a Foreign Founder of the Year award at the recent 2022 Estonian Startup Awards ceremony for his dedication and an usual startup journey.

Can you please explain just exactly what it is that you do? What’s your product?

Modash is helping consumer companies to partner with lots and lots of content creators online. We have some companies that are partnering with tens of thousands of creators every year. And these creators are on YouTube and TikTok, and Instagram. Anybody who makes something online, we consider them a creator.

How do you find the creators, how do you find the content? How do you bring these two parts together? It doesn’t sound like there are people at Modash sitting and skimming through the profiles of different content creators, but you have created a software solution or filters.

We collect the publicly available content, and then we make some decisions about the creators at scale. If “Jack” on Tiktok is talking about football all the time and how he’s a referee on the weekends and is excited about the Barcelona game today, we see that Jack is interested in sports and athletics. Now we have categorised him in such a way that we can make it really easy for brands who might be selling sports and athletics-related products to find him so that they can partner with him. There are around 300 million content creators in Modash. You can imagine it’s pretty hard to get through that list unless you have good ways of filtering.

Creators never really have to sign up to Modash. They can come and opt-out and ask us not to keep them in there, though usually they’re very happy to be there. But just like Google goes and collects blog articles and decides what kind of questions they answer, we do the same thing with creator content. Now, in TikTok, for example, we list around 115,000,000 profiles.

Hendry Sadrak and Avery Schrader 

Maybe you can walk me through some examples of a company?

Bolt might be a good example of Modash’s use case because they’re a little more international. What Bolt might do if they decide to expand to Cyprus and start offering ride-hailing and food delivery there: if you’re sitting in Tallinn, in the Bolt HQ, you might not know about every creator in Cyprus. So, they would come to Modash, choose Cyprus as a location, and filter for the high-performing folks in Cyprus who talk about food.

Bolt is partnering with several hundred creators in long-term partnerships. They pay those creators as the creators convert new customers. I think they probably reach out to 50 creators a month, and maybe they add ten or 20 to their program. They have some creators who apply directly to their program, and then they use Modash to decide whether or not they’re a good fit. The creators post about Bolt and try to push the local Cypriots to purchase.

And this is a service that you don’t offer just for the Estonian market, but globally. Right?

Yeah. Google uses Modash in Asia Pacific, and we have NordVPN also. Then Shopcider is a really cool e-commerce company that uses Modash. One of the biggest telecoms in the US uses Modash now as well. Quite a few of those big consumer companies are using us.

Where is that you make your money?

We charge a subscription. It’s pretty simple. The search engine part is our core product, but we also have some other features and functions. People subscribe to Modash, which lets them search for a certain number of creators a month or monitor a certain number. Let’s say they have 10,000 people posting for them all throughout the year. It’s impossible to keep up with that content. Modash will collect the content for them so that they don’t have to go scrolling through TikTok to find every post about them on social. 

When you started, it was a new trend that you hit in the right moment. And now nobody doubts that there’s value in it for the companies that do these deals.

Advertising works like a big bucket of money, and then the big bucket of money is spread out in a few places. Usually, those few places are Google and Facebook and the very high-performing cost-per-click type ads. And then there’s some stuff for brand marketing and experimental things. In the last few years, those buckets where the money goes have been broken up a lot.

Apple’s privacy changes damaged Facebook’s ad monopoly, and then Elon Musk bought Twitter, and TikTok is stealing eyeballs from everybody but not monetising with ads. There’s been so much chaos in the advertising space that we coined the phrase ‘direct to the creator’.

So instead of going through the platforms, it makes sense for the brands to go directly to the creators to create content without needing to rely on the middlemen going through chaos. And we’ve seen that in the last couple of years, more and more companies are putting some of that bucket of money into partnerships with creators in all kinds of formats. It has definitely been a big tailwind.

If you look at it from a content creator’s point of view, what is a realistic goal for someone to achieve through this line of work?

It really depends on how passionate you are about making stuff. I think some people’s initiation into the creator world is that they kind of like the idea of having the most Instagram followers in their friend group. And probably that person’s aspirations should be that this is like a side hustle where they can make a little bit of money and it’s important to recognise that that’s what it will be.

But for those who love making stuff and building communities and love the entrepreneurial grind of trying to build a following on YouTube or whatever it is, the sky is the limit. You’re only limited by your imagination, capacity to work, and maybe resilience to failure. Every video when you’re a YouTuber is like a new startup idea, so you have to fail through a couple of hundred ideas before you find an angle that works for you.

But if you’re willing to do that and suffer through it, then the sky is the limit. I think the first objective is to replace your full-time income and become a full-time creator. That’s where we aim to help – to create more opportunities for those small creators.

99% of people are not Kim Kardashian. They are people like you and me who love to make stuff. They are teachers, artists, athletes, and people making a positive impact in the world in their own community. For those folks, it’s just about getting through that grind and getting across that threshold of minimum viable income. And from there, the sky is the limit.

Would you say that to be successful, you need to build up a professional production company as a creator? Or could someone who is just talented and passionate have this kind of success?

“Paranormal Activity” is the answer to your question. I mean, it’s one of the biggest movies in its genre, and it’s filmed on a handicam with a budget of $15,000, and it made millions and millions of dollars. It’s a good example of what you can do on a bare-bones budget, even in Hollywood. If you’re one person and have an iPhone, you could make “Paranormal Activity” with your friends. The most important thing for creators to focus on is making their next video as good a video as they possibly can, as fast as possible. Just making a great piece of content that will bring joy, education, or something meaningful into people’s day.

 Modash team

Are there types of content that are in at the moment or that are coming up? New trends?

How creators should think about trends – you can use them as a jumping-off point, but you really need to find your own lane where you’re motivated to produce content consistently.

I think PewDiePie is a really great example of this. He changed the type of content he made several times. And even today, years later, he has millions of views of the video. So don’t worry too much about sticking in one place or following a trend if you’re on the creator side.

On the brand side, I think the trick is to get past the brand guidelines as much as you possibly can and put somebody who’s digitally native and loves to make stuff in charge of running your social. Try to remove as much bureaucracy as possible and let them go crazy. I think that’s the key. The one piece of advice is to drop the brand guidelines and make something people want to consume because we get so caught up in “is this perfect?” “Is this on brand?”, that we don’t let the serendipity of just producing incredible stuff happen. Nobody would have said that Jackson Pollock’s paintings were perfect.

It was just painted splotches on the canvas. It was nothing to look at. But now we idolise these creations from people who otherwise probably looked crazy. And I think you have to allow that kind of creative potential and not box it in too much.

What’s the biggest challenge? In this sector, everyone seems to struggle to find talent to hire.

I think what’s really helpful is being fully distributed or remote. I never really understood that hiring is difficult. But we also never had to hire 200 people in a month, so I think you feel the pain in a different way at that scale. Now it seems that the market has loosened up a little bit. There’s a lot more talent poking around. I think things are getting easier now.

No challenges, no burnout?

We have lots of big challenges, for sure. We’re in a stage now where we had one customer join us in January, with 25 full-time employees using Modash. That’s their only job – to use Modash all day long. And in a month, they had built lists of like 150,000 or 200,000 influencers.

And just the sheer scale of this breaks everything. It breaks the platform, which breaks the customer support, making sales more difficult, like a chain reaction. The scaling pain is definitely starting to hit us. The other thing that’s really challenging right now for me as this is my first company, I have a lot to learn about building a real organisation.

Something happens between 15 and 25 people, and the founders aren’t in every meeting. We don’t talk to every person every day. We have to stop doing so many individual tasks because now my job really is to figure out how to make sure we can scale the team to 50 people without our customers attacking us and saying that we’re doing a terrible job.

Also, figuring out little details like understanding how do you measure performance when you love everybody in your team. It’s really hard, actually. You don’t want to tell anybody they’re doing a bad job. And how do you make sure that the people in your team are telling you when you’re doing a bad job and that you need to do better? There are so many little puzzles to solve, many of which take a long time because they’re like this cultural, behavioural type of thing.

We have ten nationalities in the team – myself from Canada, then the UK, Kosovo, Spain, Germany, Romania, Greece, Moldova, Russia, and Hong Kong. It’s already been such an incredible experience. I never could have asked for anything more. And I love working with people and trying to build big stuff. And I always loved content creators, so this is my chance to make a dent in the world and try to help every creator earn a living.

How do you find working here overall?

It’s incredible. I love Tallinn, and I love Estonia in general. I grew up in a really small town; for me, Tallinn is the perfect city. It has everything that the city could offer without all the noise and chaos.

There’s something so special about not having to worry about a bunch of bureaucracy and administration tasks when you’re building stuff. I mean, there are some days I couldn’t imagine the pain when your biggest customer unsubscribes and you also have to do your taxes on paper and mail them in. I would be hard-pressed to find a reason to leave Estonia. 

What’s your favourite place in Estonia when you have a day off?

I’m kind of a café guy, so I spend many of my weekends working from Nop Café or T 35 in Kalamaja. These are my go-to spots for a relaxed day. But to get out of the working mode, I just go for super long walks through Kadriorg park and the Japanese Gardens and up and down the fancy new boardwalk to Pirita. Just walking in circles, finding new little nooks and crannies and fun cafes.

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