Influencer marketing, which is on track to become a $15 billion industry by 2022, is a unique way for creators to monetize their content and outreach.
The problem with this industry is both the supply and demand dynamics, as well as an unfulfilling culture, according to some. More and more, creators are being faced with a tough decision, innovate or die.
22-year-old Illinois native Griffin Johnson has done just that. The media influencer, who recently made a pivot into angel investing and entrepreneurship, is not only looking to diversify his earnings but also spread increased value to his highly engaged audience, from his experiences networking with the likes of hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, Miami mayor Francis X. Suarez and others.
In an exclusive interview, Benzinga chatted with Johnson to learn more about his pivot to investing and entrepreneurship, as well as his vision for the future and how he will continue to engage those followers that have been with him since the beginning.
Origins: Johnson was your average midwest teen: sports, family and odd jobs.
“I grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois called Paris,” Johnson told Benzinga. “I started working when I was 12 detasseling corn. When I was 17, I worked at a corn mill, and then, when I was 18, I went to work at a steel mill.”
Life wasn’t too thrilling, Johnson said; the teen was in constant pursuit of opportunities that would guarantee him a comfortable lifestyle.
“I was tired of being broke,” he chuckled. “I loved chemistry and wanted to do anesthesia, so I went into nursing because it was an easy way to get through school and make good money.”
Fast forward, in his pastime, while studying to become a nurse, Johnson was brought onto emerging social media platforms, like TikTok, by close friends. He began posting, as he calls “cringy,” videos of him having fun and doing odd things, like wearing pajamas to class.
“I was posting videos daily and they kept blowing up,” he remarked. “I started going viral … before TikTok was mainstream.”
At the outset, Johnson was a victim of social stigma, but his vision, as well as the potential for earnings, allowed him to overcome the negatives, like depression and anxiety.
“My teachers hated me at my school,” he said in reference to peers fabricating lies about his commitment to courses. “I went from being respected by everyone, like the VP of recruitment of my fraternity and everything to literally like the guy everyone laughed at.”
Johnson persevered. Four months into his social media career, he went on tour with friends he made on the platform, and things have never been the same, since. The influencer left Indiana State University to double down on social media, co-founding the Los Angeles-based content collective Sway House, and growing his follower base to nearly 20 million across a variety of different platforms.
Career Evolves: “Social media careers don’t last.”
That’s according to Johnson who is, alongside other members of the Sway House like Josh Richards, taking a shot at entrepreneurship, angel investing, corporate consulting, music and acting, among other things.
“Successful social media creators always end up trying to pivot out or find a way to create longevity in their career,” he notes. “I will continue to use my platform — I’m not quitting — I see it more as a tool to leverage for business.”
As recently as March, Johnson, alongside Richards and Noah Beck, in partnership with Marshall Sandman and Michael Gruen, launched Animal Capital.
As society transitions from the COVID-19 pandemic into the so-called new Roaring Twenties, Animal Capital is the first Generation Z-focused venture capital fund promoting innovation in areas such as fintech, healthtech and media, with the help of digital creator megastars at the founder-level.
Part of Animal’s advisory team is Justin Kan, co-founder of Twitch; Suckhinder Singh Cassidy, a former Google, Amazon, and StubHub executive; Jana Messerschmidt of Lightspeed Venture Partners and #ANGELS; Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss of Winklevoss Capital; and Jason Levine of NewFlow Partners.
“I want to put money into things that I use and believe in,” Johnson notes. Thus far, the firm has raised nearly $15 million. “We’re already shaping the culture, we may as well build or invest in it first.”
Aside from gathering seven-figure term sheets, investing in dozens of startups like Versus Game, and working with partners like former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, ex-TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer and Sean Rad of Tinder, Dave Grutman of Groot Hospitality, among others, Johnson is an active advisor, assisting platforms like Breakr and Pearpop, ReKT Global, as well as the Fan Controlled Football League, on vision development and execution.
Giving Back: Cognizant of some missteps and hardships he went through in building his career as a creator and businessman, Johnson is committed to giving back.
In 2020, he, alongside other members of the Sway House, donated masks and blankets. The young star also raised money for Barstool Sports’ COVID-19 relief fund, subsidized the college tuition of underserved high school students, and volunteered for Kimbal Musk’s Million Garden Movement.
“Social media is not all about eyeballs,” Johnson remarked. “It’s about having your niche audience and understanding how to get those people to convert, and be engaged in the message you’re trying to spread.”
Visions: “People that actually love you will convert, regardless of where you go, or engagement.”
Despite a pivot to business, Johnson is committed to creating valuable content for those followers that value him the most. He’s looking to break into the motion picture and music industry, working with the likes of Cal Shapiro at Timeflies.
“He’s a lyrical genius,” Johnson said in an earlier conversation. “We’re working on creating a parody group called Alter Ego because we want it to be our alter egos.”
Johnson’s first music recording — “Convenient” — garnered nearly 25 million streams in the first month of its release. Also successful is Brand Aid, a podcast on brand building Johnson co-hosts with Forbes Contributor Tom Ward.
When asked about whether or not he’s encountered difficulties in his attempts to break through, Johnson said, “I get rejection every day, … I send out plenty of tweets, plenty of DMs. I shoot for the stars.”
“Some of my greatest relationships are from that,” he added. “I spoke to Shaq, just because I DM’d him. I got GaryVee on a podcast, just because I DM’d him.”
Present projects include a viral video series, a hybrid of Tosh.0 and Ridiculousness, he explains.
“We’re also looking at doing a Gen-Z Top Gear, a fishing show, and ultimately going into mainstream Hollywood movies.”
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