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Alexis Gay: How to balance creation & monetization

Alexis Gay: How to balance creation & monetization

Alexis Gay is the self-identified Type-A comedian and host of Non-Technical, the podcast where she interviews leaders in tech, business, media, and beyond about everything but their resumés.

Before diving headfirst into polyworking, she led creator partnerships and biz ops at Patreon. For the second installment of this two-part series, we sat down with Alexis to jam on:

  1. How social media algorithms are rewiring the creative process
  2. What it means to create for yourself vs. for monetization
  3. Similarities between working in startup tech vs. comedy

How does content creation compare to tech?

My approach to creative polyworking, specifically in comedy, has interestingly mimicked a lot of my experiences at tech startups. I never received formal instruction in either of these fields.

I started my tech career as an intern in New York, six days out of college, at a startup with less than twenty people. Two weeks later, they asked me, “Do you wanna be an account manager?”

Of course, I answered, “Yeah! What is that?” Then they just went, “Well, you get to figure that out.” That’s how my career at that startup went for three years.

If you didn't know how to do something, like Excel, you just Googled whatever you needed. Ta-da! Now you know how to work Excel. Those were the methodologies I gained in tech.

Moving fast and breaking things — 10 years later

I highlight these tech experiences because they’ve informed my current work in two ways:

  1. I believe you’ll always be iterating toward what you ultimately want
  2. I believe no single idea or project I produce is ever too precious or perfect

That second point is a prominent ethos in tech. I mean, I started in the industry in 2013, when “Move fast and break things” was hung up on every office wall and people swore by that saying.

Obviously, there are issues with that mindset, and tech has since gained some self-awareness – though arguably still not enough. At the same time, the idea of constant experimentation and improvement, while not being too precious with your output, has been pretty central to my work and moving to me personally.

Like, with standup comedy, you don’t start on stage with your perfect tight five. It’s more like:

  1. You test out jokes and see what gets a laugh
  2. You swap out some wording for the next show
  3. You cut the total dud jokes and write new ones

No one sits down, writes their material in one go, and nails it. Everything is completely iterative and almost entirely user research-based.

Don’t make it perfect — make it better

I know that this trial-and-error nature of creation can really hold people back from sharing new work or trying new mediums. But, in reality, I think the only way out is through.

You have to go out and fall flat on your face in front of the audience to figure out what jokes to cut and make the next one better. You can always, always make the next one better.

If you wait and wait till the work is perfect, you’ll never put anything out there.

For instance, in between my gigs at Twilio and Patreon, I was unemployed and had no idea what I wanted to do. So I resolved to post one 60-second video every day for 30 days.

That experiment helped me realize — I don’t have to be great at this. I only have to consistently try and practice and improve. To this day, I try my best to hold true to that mindset.

What does it mean to create for yourself vs. others?

We truly live in a fascinating time for the relationship between creative work and monetization.

As you can imagine, spending three years at Patreon — a company aiming to help creators achieve financial independence — has influenced my perspective on this.

Ultimately, I do not believe that getting paid to create something makes that art any worse, cheaper, or less than something that's created for the simple beauty or joy of the art.

What I do believe is there are resources and opportunities through which you can make sponsored content that’s still of amazing quality and something you can be proud of.

Finding truth and fun in paid work

With that, I do take on a limited number of sponsored opportunities, mainly because I want to partner with the right companies who understand my artistic intentions.

For instance, creating a video with Polywork as my partner felt right because:

  • It was framed as an “anti-marketing” moment, where I could still be satirical
  • The sponsor and I got to be super openly collaborative, passing scripts back and forth

Maybe my business background has softened my stance on what it means to get paid to create something or create “for other people,” but that’s just how I feel. I believe there are ways to create art for money that don’t diminish the value of the art.

How has social media impacted creators’ processes?

When it comes to social media, algorithms and monetization flows can mean many different things for content creators.

I’ll use YouTube as an example of an ad-driven platform. YouTube enables so many creators to earn a range of income by running ads on their videos.

To play well with YouTube’s recommendations engine and get views on those ads, people are pushed to create in certain ways to meet their KPIs. However, it’s important to note that these KPI goalposts are always changing because YouTube is building their product to optimize for their customers’ needs, and their customers are the advertisers. For instance, with watch times:

  1. You want longer videos with more ads that’ll be watched all the way to the end
  2. You also need catchy titles and vivid thumbnails to pull people toward your videos
  3. That then might encourage clickbait titles — but YouTube will also ding your account if too many people click on and exit your videos immediately

So that creates a jungle gym of benchmarks for creators to navigate. Even if you're not engaging with sponsors in the traditional sense, you're still on a treadmill to create certain types of content that'll put you in YouTube's algorithmic good graces.

Stepping off the treadmill

Of course, outside of YouTube, algorithms are infamously crucial to how content functions and disseminates itself across platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

Consistency, repeatability, and just giving your audience what they expect from you have become crucial to achieving real growth — particularly viral growth — on those apps.

As a creative person, the problem is that you probably don't want to churn out the same content for the rest of your life. For example, I made my first-ever video in April of 2020.

Looking ahead, it was clear that I could stay on the treadmill and keep creating "what worked" for Twitter (AKA tech and San Francisco content), or I could step back and do what I wanted.

I even had a friend tell me, with the nicest intentions, "Man, how are you gonna top that, Alexis? I guess you need to make 'Every Single Party in San Francisco: Part 2.'"

So I made the very intentional choice to say, “I want to create content that feels authentic to me plus my evolving interests. I need to be building my audience, not just any audience.”