Koji is Building Tools for the Next Generation of Creators

Koji began with a 'List of Links' app, but now offers nearly 300 other apps for users.

Koji founders Dmitry Shapiro and Sean Thielen
Dmitry Shapiro (left) and Sean Thielen LUIS CHAVEZ

This story was initially published in The Creators — a newsletter about the people powering the creator economy. Get it sent to your inbox.

Dmitry Shapiro and Sean Thielen founded Koji, a service offering free apps to creators, when Thielen was living in Shapiro’s garage in 2016. Koji allows software developers to release apps, or “templates” as Koji calls them, while bypassing Apple’s and Google’s app stores. The apps, many of which provide tools for creators to earn money, are instead accessed through links and they have taken off in the creator economy.

The two founders are an unlikely pair. Shapiro, 53, has founded multiple companies and worked in senior positions at Google and MySpace Music. Thielen, 28, is a self-taught coder with an English degree. They met online while Thielen was studying at Chapman University in California. 

Koji is most known for its List of Links app. Creators on platforms like Instagram and TikTok can only display one link in their profile at a time. But they often want to list more—links to their merchandise site, their podcast, an article about them and their Patreon profile, for example. List of Links, and its rival, Linktree, display one link that brings users to a third-party page with as many links as a creator wants, allowing creators to connect these revenue-boosting sites to their social media. 

Koji offers almost 300 other apps. Users can pay creators to answer their questions on Ask Me Anything, share donations on Gift Me and pay for video messages through Shoutout.

The Observer’s Rachyl Jones recently spoke with Shapiro and Thielen. This interview has been lightly edited

How has your product grown over the years? 

Shapiro: When Sean and I started the company four years ago, we were not building anything having to do with the creator economy. The platform was built for software developers to rapidly create web applications that didn’t need to go through the app store. They’d simply have a link. And developers could use those apps on any form of tech. Developers started building these creator economy tools.

We can make it easy for you to display TikToks on Instagram, or Tweets in TikToks. A lot of creators want to be able to collect email addresses or other types of information from their users, and we provide that for them. Think of it as various types of interactive mini experiences that might be for the purpose of commerce, might be for creating deeper relationships, or crowdsourcing content, or allowing fans to express themselves to each other.

Are these apps developed by employees or can anyone develop an app and offer it through Koji?

Shapiro: Any independent developer in the world can show up and add things to the template store. 

How do the developers get paid?

Shapiro: It’s free of charge to use the templates. If it allows you to make money—meaning it has in-app purchases—we take a fee for each transaction that happens, and the developer that created that template gets a part of it. The developers are the creative juice that fuels the innovation here.

What percent do you take?

Shapiro: The developer that publishes the template gets to set the fee. We have some templates that are 5 percent, some that are 10 and some that are 15. I don’t know of any that are above 15. 

Thielen: Those transactions bypass the fees of the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Apple takes a 30 percent cut. We are not subject to that, nor are the creators who use Koji. 

(Apple takes a 30 percent cut from developers who make more than $1 million through the ‌App Store‌ annually and 15 percent for developers who make less).

Most people see you as a “Link in Bio” platform, but you have hundreds of other apps. Do you think leaning so much into the “Link in Bio” marketing in the early days hindered you?

Shapiro: I do think it’s hindered us. It was a function of time. I think when we needed to—as we were building our template library that took years—positioning (Koji) as a “Link in Bio” was generally the right approach. I think now that would not be the best moving forward, and that’s why we clarified the product on our homepage. 

How do you ensure multiple apps aren’t trying to do the same thing?

Shapiro: We have not had that issue yet.

Thielen: The thing the creator economy is lacking is true, proper competitive dynamics that let creators say, “Oh, I want to try Cameo. Actually, let me try Shoutout and see if it makes me more money.” It’s really hard to do that today. In an ideal world, there’s 10 different Cameo-style things that are designed and optimized differently. Some might be optimized for different geographies or languages or types of creators. And people can come in and pick the ones that are best for them. And if nothing exists that they want, then they can inspire the third-party developer community to fill that gap in the market. The interesting thing about the app store model for us is that competitive, primordial soup that it creates—that we think is actually the key to unlocking the next wave of innovation in the creator economy.

Where is the creator economy headed? 

Shapiro: I think we’re celebrating this thing called the creator economy. It is—while amazing and fascinating—actually kind of a small part of what’s happening in the world at large. These people we call creators are simply early adopters of a new way of “being” for digital natives. Now, we’re focused on a whole other subset of these creators. We’re calling them “sellers.” They don’t think like creators. They’re not trying to grow an audience or trying to get ad share from YouTube. They’re saying, “I want to sell some physical product, digital product, experience or access.” The number one rule of marketing is to go where the customer is, and so they share things on social media. A seller might post 20 videos a day. ​​A person’s chance of monetary success is much higher being a seller than being a creator. 

With all these crazy layoffs, more and more people will be nudged into becoming solopreneurs. In today’s age, the best approach is to go to social media and engage (the audience) in some way. I think what you’re about to see is a massive inflation of people that are trying to become what today we call creators. We are at the precipice of all of this. Strap in and get ready for a rocket.

This interview was originally published in The Creators, a newsletter about the people powering the creator economy. Get it in your inbox before it’s online.  Koji is Building Tools for the Next Generation of Creators