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This 37-year-old launched a social media company with 400,000 users — while keeping his day job

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Lyonel Dougé is the 37-year-old founder of TipSnaps.
Source: TipSnaps

Maybe, after a long day, you like to unwind with a book. Perhaps you learn how to cook something new.

Or, you can be Lyonel Dougé, a 37-year-old digital product manager at pharmaceuticals giant Johnson & Johnson who spends his down-time running a growing social media company, which he launched from his West Orange, New Jersey, home in 2017.

Called TipSnaps, Dougé's side hustle is a subscription platform where fans can view exclusive content from their favorite social media creators. In less than five years, it has registered more than 450,000 users and paid out more than $2.5 million in subscription fees to 60,000-plus online creators and influencers.

The company keeps 10% of each transaction, meaning TipSnaps has brought in roughly $275,000 in lifetime revenue, CNBC Make It estimates. Dougé declined to confirm any specific revenue figures, but says he wants to grow TipSnaps to millions of users and billions of dollars in annual transactions – while championing influencers and creators of color, many of whom have been overlooked by the thriving creator economy.

There's a parallel here: Dougé, who is Black, similarly feels like he's been overlooked, as newer competitors have raced past him to get funding from deep-pocketed venture capital firms. He says his own lack of outside funding is holding him back from turning this side-hustle into a full-time business.

"We persevere," he says. "We've gotten to this point."

'I had this epiphany'

In 2016, Dougé was scrolling Instagram during some downtime from building websites for Johnson & Johnson products like Listerine or Neutrogena when he had an epiphany: Social media influencers could profit much more effectively if their fanbases paid them directly, especially for exclusive content.

Today, that concept is the lynchpin of the "creator economy." But Dougé proudly points out that he entered the market relatively early, around the same time as personalized video platform Cameo and adult-themed OnlyFans, and more than a year before YouTube started offering its premium subscription service for creators.

Dougé says he spent six months coding three hours every night – and more on weekends – before launching the TipSnaps website in March 2017. He direct-messaged influencers with more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, telling them they could earn more money off their popular content on TipSnaps.

TipSnaps' tools allow users to discover social media creators to follow and subscribe to, while a new feature called Tip Pools offers crowdfunding options.
Source: TipSnaps

It took just a week for TipSnaps to register its first transaction. The site had 50,000 registered users within six months. Later that year, Dougé brought on a co-founder — Vic Boddie, a biologist and compliance officer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by day — so he wouldn't have to manage TipSnaps' growth as a one-man operation.

Today, Dougé still operates the company mostly from his home office, or a WeWork space he visits once per week. TipSnaps has four part-time employees: Dougé, Boddie and two support staff workers in the Philippines.

Dougé says he's "been lucky" to have the support of his employers, who are well aware of his ambitious side project. And he's thankful to his wife and in-laws for giving him free reign to spend so many hours of his nights and weekends working on TipSnaps.

"We're competitive with the Patreons of the world, and to build that bootstrapped is pretty intense," he says.

'I've got to pay bills'

Building a business in your spare time is hard enough. But Dougé has reached this point with hardly any help from outside investors.

He's quick to cite the fact that Black founders get a tiny fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars handed out to start-up founders each year by venture capital firms, and says a lack of VC interest has made his bootstrapping prowess more than a fun story: It's a necessity.

"I'd love to quit my job and just focus on this full time," Dougé says. "But I've got a [family] and I've got a mortgage and I've got to pay bills. So I've got to go the hard route for now."

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The plan was never to bootstrap TipSnaps. Dougé estimates he's pitched roughly 40 VC firms and counting, and several angel investors. None of the VC firms opted to invest, despite Dougé's track record of launching and acquiring users and revenue.

At least one of those conversations did lead to a pre-seed investment of $200,000 from angel investors last year. Pat Condon, the angel investor who led the round, is also a partner at VC firm Active Capital, which focuses primarily on enterprise software start-ups — and while TipSnaps didn't fit the bill, Condon empathized with Dougé's frustrations.

Plus, Condon says, Dougé had "all the right qualities as an entrepreneur that I would look for."

Other similar platforms have attracted millions of dollars in funding. One called FanHouse, which launched in 2020, has already raised more than $30 million, according to CrunchBase.

Dougé can't say for sure why TipSnaps has failed to land VC money so far. He says his non-Ivy League background could put him at a disadvantage in terms of networking — he studied computer engineering at the University of Pittsburgh — and cites the VC community's poor track record investing in Black founders as a potential explanation. 

"I guess if you're a Black founder, and you don't seem like the typical founder, you [hear]: 'We want to keep in touch, let us know,'" he says.

'Everybody's a creator'

Dougé declined to specify exactly how much funding he'd need to quit his day job, but says TipSnaps will launch an equity crowdfunding campaign on investment platform Republic this month. He hopes it'll raise an additional $750,000.

His goal, he says, is to surpass 20 million registered users within the next three years, with more than $1 billion in annual payouts to creators. That's a tall ask, especially given the competition it faces from well-funded rivals and social media giants like Instagram and TikTok, which are both launching their own subscription services for creators.

But Dougé sees plenty of room for TipSnaps in a burgeoning creator economy that's been valued at more than $100 billion. The company would would only need to capture "fractions" of that market to hit his ambitious goals, he says.

Practically on his own, Dougé has already attracted a roster of more than 60,000 creators, from fashion and beauty influencers to chefs, dancers and musicians. More funding would help him hire developers, market the app to new potential users and bring on employees tasked with building bridges with diverse influencer communities, he says.

Roughly 70% of the creators on TipSnaps are currently people of color. "Everybody's a creator, we're not excluding anybody," Dougé says. "But [we are] ensuring that a lot of the niches of creators who don't feel like they have a home yet can find their home at TipSnaps."

Two years ago, TikTok apologized to Black creators who accused the platform of suppressing their content, especially videos related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Last year, Bloomberg reported that creators of color with millions of followers — on a variety of platforms — were regularly underpaid or unpaid by marketers, who shell out over $10 billion a year to creators for brand endorsements.

"[It's] a similar story that I have as a Black founder," Dougé says. "There is just tons of evidence that creators of color are running into the same kind of systemic issues."

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