"The potential in NFTs for creators is really huge"

Esade Entrepreneurship Institute

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eWorks is the Esade venture creation program; it provides a series of activities and services designed to foster and support new venture creation by Esade students and recent graduates.

The Esade Doers podcast series, led by eWorks manager Davide Rovera, focus on entrepreneurs from the eWorks Community who present their startups and share experiences, learnings, sources of inspiration and tips with fellow entrepreneurs.

Today, we can learn from Adrien Stern, an Esade graduate who founded Reveel, a platform for creators to automate their back-end administrative tasks.

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Davide Rovera: Welcome to Esade Do Better, a podcast about entrepreneurs and innovators. Our guest today is Adrien Stern, founder of Reveel. Adrien, thank you very much for being with us, for taking the time and for sharing your experience with the public.

Adrien Stern: Hi, David. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Davide Rovera: So, before we jump into more details. Can you give us a quick 30-second speech about what Reveel is today?

Adrien Stern: Yes, sure. So, Reveel is really a platform that helps creators automate a lot of their back-end administrative tasks. We look at it as sort of like SAP, maybe, for creators, where we want to automate, you know, managing copyrights and all the metadata, the different contracts that you need to sign with collaborators, but also processing royalties and making sure that the accounting behind the revenue that’s generated is automated and that all the creators of a specific work are paid properly.

Davide Rovera: That’s very interesting and extremely… As well, it’s a growing industry right now, the whole creator economy. But it’s very specific, as well. Maybe let’s hear a bit about… Do you have any background in the area?

Adrien Stern: Yes, for sure, you know. Before I got interested in business, I was the musician of a Swiss reggae band called Najavibes and we had a great run, we toured all around Europe. So, by the time I had to go to college, I decided I would study business so that I could manage the band, and we started producing other artists, and then I decided to start our own independent record label. And, so, for about 6 to 7 years, I had a very hands-on experience about what it was like to manage and run a creative business. And, so, I got to, you know, see how hard it was and complex to understand all the different types of legal agreements that you need to sign with collaborators, how to settle on copyright ownership and where to register the copyrights so that everyone gets paid properly, how tedious the metadata around, you know, for instance, a song is, and the fact that every collaborator needs to be referenced with specific codes. And, if these codes are not in the metadata, they don’t get paid properly.

So, you know, I sort of learned that as I was doing. Fast-forward a couple of years, I decided to partner with a good friend of mine from high school, who’s a software developer, to build solutions that could automate a lot of these tasks, in a way, to democratize the opportunity to be more professional for creators.

Davide Rovera: Fantastic. But, so, then you said, you have the experience, you were in the band, then kind of took up the management side on your own, and then you said you fast-forwarded to the moment you decided to build a software. Was it, you know, an idea coming more from the “I want to solve the problem I’m having” or more of an entrepreneurial mindset of “I want to build something that can become a business and maybe even sustain myself?”

Adrien Stern: Yes, I think it was a combination of both. You know, the… By the time I came to the realization that there was an opportunity there, it was a couple of years after I had experienced it, right? You know, between then and that moment, I had worked in banking, I had done my MBA at Esade, I had worked in innovation consulting and sort of connected the dots of all my experiences and realized that entrepreneurship was where I wanted to be. And, so, I started looking at my past experiences but also industry trends and technology trends and found this sort of sweet-spot, which is where we’re operating now in the creator economy, but bringing technology to it, to aim to solve a problem that I had experienced myself. So very much a combination of that. But we do have the ambition with Reveel to, you know, to be a business platform that can really impact the creator economy and allow more people to be successful as they choose to become professional creators.

Davide Rovera: Fantastic. And so, how does Reveel work today? What is the, let’s say, the journey from a creator point of view?

Adrien Stern: Yes, we’ve been live now for 3 months, and we have, you know, hundreds of creators using the platform. And, what they’re really doing is they’re taking care of sort of business back-end tasks, right? So, they’re inviting their collaborators in order to credit them and to settle on copyright ownership, to establish those splits with their cowriters and with their producers and with potential session musicians, etc. And, then, you know, the platform allows them to save a lot of time in doing these administrative tasks to make sure that all, you know, the “i’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed before a song is released, which allows them to actually get paid more. And, what we’re realizing is that creators who use our platform are becoming aware of new revenue streams that they weren’t necessarily aware of, and, you know, on average, they’re finding 20% more royalties than they would have, you know, collected had they not been using the platform. So, there are really 2 benefits currently to users which is, one, they’re saving a lot of time on these tedious administrative tasks, and, two, they’re actually able to collect more money because they’re doing the work, that administrative work, properly.

Davide Rovera: Okay. And you mentioned royalties, so, are you specifically targeting musicians and video-makers or are you also embracing the broader kind of online creator community?

Adrien Stern: Well, this is where I get really excited because we started in the music industry but we’re seeing that Reveel has a lot of potential in other forms of media. So, there are two, really two angles to this. In the traditional world, you know, sort of the Web 2 world, if you will, we are already seeing that users are coming to us and saying, “Well, you know what? I’m working on a music video, and I would like to use Reveel to capture the credits for the music video or, you know, register the rights for it, etc.,” so, providing the potential to branch into new forms of media with our existing platform.

And, then the second opportunity is really in the Web 3 world, right? And sort of the crypto-enabled creator economy, if you will. And here what we’re seeing is that a lot of users and creators are coming to us and saying, “Look, we are releasing, you know, art in the form of NFTs, whether visual or audio. And we have no real tool to create splits with our collaborators and to track these royalties and automate them to make sure that all our collaborators are getting paid their fair share.”

And, so, this is really, you know, a new space that we’re looking at and we’re starting to work on. So, in the next, you know, sort of weeks, potentially a month or so, we’ll be announcing an interesting partnership with a really big artist around processing the royalties for her NFT release. And that, I think, is a fantastic space to be exploring because, in the Web 3 environment, there are many fewer middlemen, and that means that creators are getting, you know, a much higher percentage of the revenue that they generate. So, we’re obviously excited about being able to facilitate that.

Davide Rovera: Fantastic and it’s, as well, a booming sector overall and the interest and what’s happening with NFTs, in general, but specifically for the creator economy, it’s massive, so…

Adrien Stern: It is massive, you know. I think in 2020 there were maybe a 100, a couple 100 million dollars that were traded in NFTs. In 2021 we’re already at around 27 billion dollars, and the projection for, you know, 5 years down the road is that we’ll be past half a trillion dollars in, you know, in NFTs, well, in currency traded through NFTs, basically. So, the potential there for creators is really huge.

Davide Rovera: It is, and I think as well the… By talking to other people, going back a step… Talking to other people in more, in the music industry or in general, this idea of kind of giving a fairer share of the royalties to artists, it’s a problem that has been there for quite some time. And, I’ve seen multiple entrepreneurs attempt to resolve it, but many have actually failed. So, what makes you different or what have you learned as well along the way?

Adrien Stern: Yes, that’s a great question. You know, this is a real problem, and there have been many reports that have shown, you know, artists who are successful and are able to have a whole team around them to do the work properly, right? They have a manager, a lawyer, an agent, a label, a publisher, all these people around them who help them to run their business. Well, these artists are left with, on average, 12% of the revenue that they generate through their art, right? And that’s because there are so many middlemen and so many people in between the fan paying and the artist receiving the money who all take a cut. That’s, that’s all that’s left for them. And so, what we’re seeing is that more and more creators are choosing to be independent. That’s also made possible because there are more tools out there for them to produce content at a cheaper cost. Platforms are competing to, you know, drive revenue to creators, right? You know, the Patreons, the Spotifys, even Facebook is getting into monetizing and being able to pay creators. And, so, more revenue is coming, which means that more start-ups like Reveel are looking to build tools that help creators manage their businesses and collect these revenues and make sure that their businesses run more effectively. This, in turn, you know, makes artists and creators more successful, which then changes the mindset around the fact that you can have a successful career as a creator, and that reinforces the whole wheel, if you want, with more creators coming in, etc.

And so, this whole trend is pushing creators towards choosing an independent route. So, that’s one, you know, sort of big trend in the industry for which we believe that we’re well placed because we’re offering tools for independent artists to manage their careers.

Another point is that I think we… You know, we’ve been in the industry for a long time, and, obviously, my experience as a creator back in the day, allows us to very quickly understand where the opportunities lie. And, you know, we’re constantly talking to dozens and dozens of creators to move as fast as they’re moving. You know, we see them go into the Web 3 space and we’ve realized they need tools for that space. And we’re there along with them.

So, I think having that proximity with the independent sort of creator community allows us to be very much in tune with their needs and to move as quickly as they are.

Davide Rovera: Absolutely. So, you mentioned the kind of… You are now embracing this move to Web 3, but that was not your original vision, was it?

Adrien Stern: Well, actually my cofounder and I had a previous idea that we worked on back in 2018 which was blockchain focused, and the idea back in the day was, “Oh, well let’s put copyright ownership data into smart contracts so we can automate royalty redistributions.” We, you know, hit a couple of walls which were that creators were not generating revenue on chain, right? And trying to convince the Spotifys and the YouTubes that they needed to pay out royalties, and, you know, on the blockchain encrypto was a really hard sell. And so that initial idea, which was called “Media Right”, we had to put that sort of to bed. But we’re sort of coming back to this now. The initial direction for Reveel was really around automating paperwork, and then we realized that there were a lot of sort of back-end administrative tasks that could also be automated, including royalty splits and now including royalty processing in the Web 3 environment. So, it’s been sort of an interesting loop back to an idea that we had a while ago. Obviously, the execution is very different today, because of the platform that we’ve already built that allows creators to establish those splits, invite their collaborators and do that paperwork, which is very much sort of the prerequisite to being able to automate the splits.

Davide Rovera: This is super fascinating as well, also seeing that in… What you mentioned as long ago was actually 4 years ago, even less than that. You tried one project, and the timing was not right for a blockchain base. But, yes, less than 4 years later, the time was indeed right, so, you went into something else, and went back just because you know those things change so quickly, that you are able as well to explore it and get back to it. I think this is fantastic, as well in terms of entrepreneurship, and the ability to change once but then also to get back to something once you realized that the situation was different. Was it a bigger market pool? Were creators actually asking you, somehow, to get onto Web 3? Or did you just spot the opportunity and jumped in on it?

Adrien Stern: Yes, it’s been a bit of both. I mean, I’ve been following, you know, the NFT space for pretty much this entire year, since early 2021. And what we realized is that, as more music creators were getting interested in the space, we were getting more requests for that type of service. And, so, you know, the NFTs really blew up, in early 2021 around what’s call these PFPs, right, which are mainly the profile pic types of NFTs, WordApes, Cryptopunks and all of that. But now we’re seeing many more types of assets being put on chain, you know, audio content, video content. And, as we see these new types of media come on chain, there are new dynamics around it, you know. It’s very rare that there is only one creator to a song. Even if they wrote the music alone and produced it alone, there is usually still like an engineer and, you know, maybe a producer. But, on average, what we see is that there are actually between 4 and 5 collaborators on average per song.

And, so, you start having a new need for automating these royalties when you see these new types of media, which are more collaborative in a way than maybe a simple design. So that has led to a new need that creators came to us with. So, it’s been I think a bit of both. But we, you know, we always make sure that we validate these ideas before we put too much effort into it. So there has been a lot of, you know, understanding those specific environments and what are the needs of creators around it.

Davide Rovera: And based on this, and based on your personal as well as professional experience, how do you see the future evolution now of the creator economy? Do you think there will be a convergence between what is more, let’s say, traditional platforms versus Web 3? Or what’s your forecast?

Adrien Stern: I think, you know, there are so many potential routes for which this could go. And I think they’re are also very dependent on the type of media. What I mean by that is that, you know, for traditional visual artists, painters or graphic designers, etc., the business model has not changed fundamentally, right? As a painter you were used to selling your artwork and sort of having a price and you received the proceeds of that sale upfront and then, you know, that art piece might be resold at a higher price. But you were never really involved in that process. Now, in Web 3, these types of creators can collect royalties each time that art is resold, so, there is a slight shift in the business model, but most of the income is still generated at the first sale. Now, what’s interesting in music, for instance, is that music has been very different. You would put out music, not get paid, and slowly, as it was consumed, then played and streamed, you would be collecting royalties. Now, what Web 3 enables is to build different business models around music. You can tokenize the future income of a song and sell it to fans before you actually release the song, meaning you capture some of the value right before the release or at the moment of the release.

But you can also decide to sell a song in the form of an NFT and sell all the rights with it, so that the buyer of that NFT can then commercialize the song and receive the proceeds, which is bringing it closer to a traditional art space, right? And, so, I think one of the really fascinating elements of it is that there is an opportunity to rethink how we are selling music, for instance, or potentially video content, and what are the, you know, sort of token mechanics that we want to put in place around that. And that’s leading to a whole potential for maybe revaluing music. What has been, you know, very interesting to me over the past sort of 2 decades in the music industry is sort of how music has been valued, right? As it’s gone into the digital realm, initially, music sort of lost a lot of its value because we became accustomed to illegal downloads for which we wouldn’t want to pay. And then through the utility that, for instance, Spotify or streaming platforms were bringing, we decided to be okay to pay for a subscription, so that we could access a lot of music. But the idea that a single song has value was still lost in that. And I think Web 3 brings that potential back. So, I’m excited about, you know, how artists are experimenting around that.

Davide Rovera: Are you seeing, as well…? I mean, you mentioned the change in terms of how music is sold and the way it’s produced, but what about the other side, so consumption? And, what, you know… Considering all the new metaverses or however we want to call them, digital spaces, where people can actually consume music, we’ve seen concerts on Fortnite, etc. We’ve very recently seen new platforms being built as well to exchange NFTs between multiple different online worlds. Do you see an evolution in terms how music is consumed in that direction? Or musical videos or content, in general?

Adrien Stern: Yes, I think… Yes, I think, obviously, the means in which we are consuming music is changing, right? And you mentioned these sort of metaverse concerts, but they’re still concerts, right? They’re still performances. And, so, I think it’ll remain that music is consumed either in a sort of quote-unquote “live” performance, whether that’s in real life or, you know, in the metaverse. Either live performances or sort of pre-recorded performances, right? I don’t think that’s going to change so much. I think one of the new possibilities is for music to become more interactive, and we’re seeing some artists experiment around this, like, for instance, releasing a collection of NFTs where every NFT is a computer-generated version of the same song, with different layers of instruments. And, so, each person that buys an NFT has actually a unique version of that song. And you could push that further and say, “Well, depending on which environment you’re in, maybe the song changes,” right? And there is you know, if you’re listening to it, maybe in a game where there’s a lot of action, you know, the drums will be louder and there’ll be more bass. But if you’re listening to it in, you know, another environment which is more peaceful, it will be more acoustic. That’s something I think we might go towards, which could be fascinating in terms of how music actually adapts to the environment we’re in.

Davide Rovera: That’s extremely exciting to see what and where this will all go, and I think we could continue this conversation for a long time. But, I would like to move as well to a few other things I want to ask you. One is, keeping with Reveel, what’s your dream? If I have to ask you, like, where do you want to see you and your company in, let’s say, 5 years from now?

Adrien Stern: Yes, I think, you know… Our vision is to be able to empower a million creators to run their business effectively, right? And make sure that their rights are being protected and that they’re getting paid properly, and empower them to have a career as independent creators. So that’s really our, you know, our goal and our vision for Reveel.

Davide Rovera: I think that’s amazing, and I think that’s fantastic that you want to help other people do what is actually their main task, right? You say, “Hey, you’re a creator. Focus on that; we take care of everything else so that you have more time and you can actually profit more from what you’re doing.” I think… Sorry..

Adrien Stern: Yes, no, that’s exactly, you know… I look back at the days when I was a musician and I remember having to spend a lot of my time doing non-music related things, right? I would have preferred, you know, practicing on the guitar or jamming with my friends or writing music or producing, whatever. But I was, you know, looking up contracts, registering stuff and doing accounting. And what we realized is that, you know, creators are good at creating, but they… Most of them don’t study business or law and don’t want to be dealing with these types of tasks, so that’s why we’re building Reveel, to allow them to focus on what they’re good at.

Davide Rovera: It’s fantastic, really. The more we can empower people to do what they want, I think the better it would be for everybody. So, I’d like to move the conversation to the closing part of the podcast and a bit more rapid-fire questions. So, I’m going to ask you a few questions, and, then, just give quick answers to get to know you a little bit better as a person and as an entrepreneur. First, one question I always like to ask to my guests is which book are you currently reading?

Adrien Stern: Yes, I’m reading “A promised land” by Barack Obama.

Davide Rovera: Okay, interesting.

Adrien Stern: Yes, amazing, amazing view into how that man, you know, thinks and what he was thinking and how he managed the situation there in his campaign and his first term. Fascinating.

Davide Rovera: Yes, I heard a lot about it; it’s still on my to-do list, but… It’s positive feedback… Back to the entrepreneurship topic, what start-up do you think is very interesting, of course, other than Reveel?

Adrien Stern: Yes…

Davide Rovera: Currently operating…

Adrien Stern: Yes, yes, for sure. I have a friend that I met at UC Berkeley, Christelle Rohaut, who is the founder of a start-up called Codi and I think what they’re doing is really interesting. They’re building a platform to enable hyper-local sort of hybrid workspaces. And the way they explain it is for people who don’t want to work from home but also don’t want to have to commute all the way to an office. And I think this is a really fascinating time for that, where a lot of people have been working from home for 2 years and are getting really sick of it, but they don’t necessarily feel comfortable going back to these offices. So these hybrid places are really interesting. So I would mention Codi for that.

Davide Rovera: And do they… Just as a follow-up question, do they actually set up the space? So, does it work sort of as a coworking format?

Adrien Stern: Yes, sort of these mini coworking spaces, so, they stay quite intimate. You’re not in a big, you know, sort of office space. I think they initially started with people actually opening their homes as coworking spaces. So, it’s always sort of limited to, you know, maybe a maximum of 10 people or so. And you meet people from your neighbourhood, and so it has more of that sort of community-led environment.

Davide Rovera: Definitely, one of the core topics now with the kind of hopefully post-pandemic scenario… New things are happening, and, as well, habits are changing. Linked to this and as well to what you’re doing, if you had to give some advice to a new entrepreneur who wanted to start a company now, regardless of their prior expertise, etc., what do you think is an interesting industry or trend that you think people should pick up?

Adrien Stern: Yes, I would really look at DAOs, decentralized autonomous organizations. They’re a new way to organize workforce and governance. And we’re seeing DAOs pop up in really a variety of different places. There are DAOs who are, you know, mimicking what a record label would do. There are DAOs that are basically investment funds; there are DAOs that are focusing on outsourcing research. So, you can really go in many directions, and it’s really a way to engage the community into the efforts of, you know, that organization. And, I think it’s a fascinating way to empower, you know, sort of a community of workers, people who have shared the same vision, but also rewarding them when they contribute to the mission of that organization.

Davide Rovera: Yes, really taking many of the middlemen out of the equation and…

Adrien Stern: Yes.

Davide Rovera: Really allowing a way for people to, again, focus on what they want to do and not do a lot of shuffling papers from one desk to another.

Adrien Stern: Yes, exactly. And really, you know, there is an ownership component built in, right? Where you’re not just an employee; you’re actually, you know, sort of an owner of the organization and, therefore, you have decision power as well.

Davide Rovera: Definitely. So, also, I’m very curious to see what will happen in that space.

Adrien Stern: Yes.

Davide Rovera: More about you as an entrepreneur, as a manager, as well… One thing I’d like to hear is if there is any advice you oftentimes give to people you work with, but you do not follow yourself?

Adrien Stern: I think one that I try to follow but is not always easy as a founder is the idea that, you know, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and the idea to take time for yourself, to, you know, to just rejuvenate every now and then and make sure you maintain that form of balance. That is something that I try to, you know, to share with people and allow them to do, although I don’t always allow myself to do it as much as I would like to. I think part of it goes in waves, and it’s part of the, you know, experience of being an entrepreneur. Sometimes it’s all-consuming. But I think it is important to remember that it is a marathon and that you have to manage your energy to be effective in the long-term.

Davide Rovera: I think this is something that really comes up a lot when talking to entrepreneurs: energy management and somehow being able to keep the drive and focus, but, as well, not deplete oneself completely… It’s very difficult to achieve as a balance.

Adrien Stern: Absolutely.

Davide Rovera: And then my last question for you is: What has been your biggest mistake as an entrepreneur?

Adrien Stern: Yes. You know, I think one of them has been to underestimate the speed at which innovation is adopted. I think when, you know, when you’re operating at the forefront of a technology or of a specific business or social innovation, it just takes so much longer for people to buy in and to get comfortable with change than one would hope. And I think part of my nature is that I’m very optimistic and I think a lot of entrepreneurs are. And sometimes that optimism can, you know, trick our mind a little bit into thinking that some of these innovations can be adopted quicker, as we would like. And I think that’s true both at a macro level, in terms of an industry adopting, you know, a new sort of tech architecture, as well as at a micro level, in terms of a business willing to try out a new solution. And, so, you know, just… There have been situations in which I’ve definitely thought our roadmap would move faster than it did, in part because of those challenges of managing change and finding the people who are willing to change quicker. Yes, so I’ll go with that.

Davide Rovera: Okay. So, really kind of… And, again, this is something that I hear from many entrepreneurs, probably a key characteristic as well, being so much towards the edge of innovation that you just assume that everybody is in a similar state of mind, whereas most people are not. There is oftentimes this delay. But, as well, sometimes when then, after a while maybe, your case could be an example, when technology does pick up, then if you have already been there, at least mentally, that can help you really take the opportunity and leverage it, so…

Adrien Stern: Yes, for sure. And I think, you know… You know, that has… That does have an up-side, because as… Being early you have the time to, you know, to fully understand all the potential that comes along with it. And, therefore, once you know companies are willing to work with you, there is a lot of value that you can provide to them, because of all that sort of work that has been done ahead of time. I think what’s, you know, in my experience, what is challenging is to manage these expectations to make sure that the business can hit the milestones that it needs to hit in order to stay alive, right? Whether it’s generating revenue or being able to raise venture capital. You know, you need to have realistic expectations… And, typically around, you know, the first idea that we spoke about, with Media Right, where we were looking at leveraging blockchain for royalty redistributions back in 2018, I think we, at that time, were a bit over-optimistic about how quickly we could get some players to test this technology and actually run royalties on the blockchain. And, that, you know, sort of put us in a rough spot in terms of being able to hit the milestones that we thought we could, right? So, yes, it’s definitely something that I look back at and try to remind myself to stay really realistic around our roadmap and the milestones we can hit.

Davide Rovera: Fantastic. Adrien, thank you so, so much for the inspiring story, for sharing with us your vision, as well, and for the job you are doing and all the creators you’re helping and will help in the future. So, thank you very much.

Adrien Stern: A pleasure. Yes, it was a pleasure, David. Thank you so much.

Davide Rovera: Thank you very much, all the best moving forward. Goodbye, ciao.

Adrien Stern: Bye.

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