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+ how to democratize career opportunities
We all have different opportunities in life depending on our own circumstances. The status quo is that people that come from wealth and privilege get access to the best education and get introduced to the right people, which eventually leads to better jobs and even more wealth and privilege. However, as the world becomes more global and digital, there are more and more platforms that are leveraging software to democratize access for everyone, regardless of who they know, where they are from, or what they have.
For example, one popular area for democratization is investing. Traditionally, only the top 1% are able to invest in alternative assets, such as real estate and racehorses, which not only appreciate and generate strong cash flow but are also a great hedge for a traditional investment portfolio of stocks and bonds due to their low correlation with the broader market. With the rise of tech along with changing regulations (e.g. the JOBS act), there are now platforms that allow retail investors from all types of income levels to invest in alternative assets through fractional investing. I wrote about this trend recently (learn more here).
Another area that is getting democratized is career opportunities. Getting your dream job is usually the function of having the talent and knowing the right people that are willing to give you a shot. There are many different approaches to this space. For example, Bloom Institute of Technology (formerly known as Lambda School) helps anyone to get access to lucrative software engineering jobs through its online coding school that doesn’t charge anything upfront until the student gets a job that pays 50K or more. Another example is Skillful, which helps people to break into business roles in tech through its team-based, immersive bootcamp led by mentors in the industry.
Protégé is another startup with the goal of democratizing career opportunities. I had the opportunity to speak with Jackson Jhin, CEO and co-founder of Protégé to learn more about how his team is approaching this problem.
Genesis of Protégé
Protégé helps students to get heard and get discovered. It allows anyone to submit a 60-second video to the best expert in the world, such as DJ Khaled and Jason Alexander, and get a guaranteed video response and a shot at a life-changing opportunity. The idea for the company came from a few main insights as well as Jackson’s personal experience.
There are a couple of unique insights:
Talent is distributed but opportunities are not - opportunities are often network-constrained or geographically constrained. Gatekeepers don’t consider the entire talent pool when deciding who to give a shot
Getting a mentor is the most efficient way to get access to the network - you can be born into the network or work your way up from the bottom, but getting the right mentor who is willing to lend their credentials and guide you is arguably the most efficient way to get in
These insights came from Jackson’s own experience becoming the CFO of Cameo at age 23.
Jackson met the Cameo founder, Steven Galanis through an accident. After graduating from college, Jackson joined Chicago Ventures as a VC investor. One day, he got locked into a WeWork in Chicago and got stuck on the 13th floor, where he met Steven for the first time.
“I had to walk over to all the offices just trying to find anyone who was still there late. I ended up knocking on Steven’s door. Steven had just quit his job a couple of weeks prior and was working with his co-founder Devon on the Cameo idea.
He and Devon started pitching me on the idea for Cameo, and we ended up talking for three hours. I fell in love with the business and I thought it was an exciting opportunity.” - Jackson
For the subsequent six months following that interesting event, Jackson decided to help out the Cameo team and moonlighted at night and on the weekends for free. Eventually, Jackson asked Steven if he could be his protege and also the CFO of Cameo. Here is how the convo went down (kind of):
Jackson - I want to be your protege.
Steven - Yeahhh, No problem. Would you want to be my Chief of Staff?
Jackson - No, no. I want to be your actual number two and be in all these meetings with you. I want to be your CFO.
Steven - You're 23. I can't make you CFO. That’s crazy. My board would kill me.
Jackson - Listen, you could hire a professional CFO, pay them half a million bucks salary and 2 to 5% equity, and they might suck. Pay me a fifth of that and I will work twice as hard. Give me 12 months to prove myself, and if I suck, you can fire me.
Steven - Bet.
It turned out to be a good bet for Steven. 12 months later, Jackson helped Cameo raise $50M from investors like Lightspeed and Kleiner Perkins. The following year, Jackson helped the company to raise $100M more from Paypal, Softbank, Google, Headline, and many more. Even before Jackson had the chance to prove himself, Steven took a bet on him to give him a fair shot. He gave him the credential and the stage to show the world what he is capable of.
Protégé is a platform that aims to help more people get connected to a mentor that could change their lives.
Supply and Demand
Protégé currently focuses on the media and entertainment industry, such as acting, music, and fashion. The experience is straightforward - anyone can submit a 60 seconds video to the experts on the platform who can give feedback, send instant reactions, or take the applicant on as a protégé. There is an application fee ranging from $10 - $200, depending on the expert. Protégé takes a 25% cut on each application. You can also get a scholarship by getting upvoted by your friends and family. It’s like American Idol meets Project Runway meets Shark Tank.
Though the general goal is to get access to a dream career. There are three nuanced incentives here at play.
Get heard - get heard by your idol and have a shot at accessing the top expert in the industry
Get feedback - get guaranteed feedback or reaction from experts and find out what the gatekeepers are looking for that you might not have at the moment
Get discovered - get signed or collaborate with your idols
These are strong incentives especially if the experts on the platform happen to be your biggest idols. Protégé has done a phenomenal job attracting tier 1 artists in the media entertainment industry, such as DJ Khaled and Jason Alexander.
One of the key learnings for Jackson from the Cameo days is that you have to respect and understand the importance of people’s time. Many experts on the platform are leaders in the industry. They are millionaires and billionaires that have crazy schedules and charge a ton for each engagement they do. What could you pay those people to make it worth their time? There needs to be a strong financial incentive baked into the platform to scale the supply side.
One of the key insights is that breaking down people’s time into chunks of minutes can make it productive for the experts and also affordable for the students. Let’s say you are at the top of the industry and you charge $10K per hour for each engagement. It sounds high but it’s not that high. If you divide that $10K by 60 minutes. It’s only around $160 per minute which becomes affordable. This is different from most expert/celebrity engagements.
“The main issue is that no one sells their time in minute chunks. In the past, people had to sell in hours or days because it involved tons of preparations and traveling. On Protégé, you are consolidating everything to the most important moment, which is I want you to listen to my idea and get your feedback. If you like it, I would like to be connected over phone, email, or build a relationship.” - Jackson
For example, DJ Khaled charges $150 for each submission. He can easily make more than half a million a year by spending half an hour a day reviewing applications while helping thousands of aspiring artists. Below is my napkin math:
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One of the most exciting things about this type of business model is that there are many growth loops. One growth loop lies in its experts, the supply side. Since Protégé primarily works with high-profile experts, specifically in the media and entertainment industries, the platform can very easily piggyback on the followings of its experts. Many experts post their Protégé link on its socials and actively promote it - which not only attracts their fans to use the platform but also adds social proof and gets other experts to want to join.
For example, Tate McRae promoted Protégé when she joined the platform and she also has the link listed on her Linktree.
Another growth loop is the applicant-to-applicant loop. One of the unique features is that if you don’t have the means to pay the application fee, you can get a scholarship by getting enough upvotes from your friends or family. By getting upvotes from other people, the applicant is also spreading the word about Protégé to other potential applicants. Let’s say the average upvote required is 150. Every time an applicant uses the scholarship option, 150 other people could potentially learn about the platform.
According to Forbes, the platform has now acquired 30K+ users and 3K+ applicants. The even more impressive validation is that many of the Protégé applicants have already signed deals with music artists including H.E.R, Breland, Brian Kelley, and Bebe Rexha. Such as the girl in this tweet.
Talent is distributed but opportunities are not. Protégé has a chance to level the playing field and allow more people to access their dream careers. Excited to learn more about what they accomplish next.
That’s it for this week! See you soon 👋