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How many $100M+ startups are overdue to be founded?

What Cameo’s $100M year teaches us about entrepreneurial timing

How many $100M+ startups are just waiting to be founded? Cameo, the celebrity selfie service, just announced a monster $100M+ GMV for 2020. It’s an impressive number, but it makes you wonder why now? Why not 2015? Or even in 1995? How early could Cameo have been started?

Pre-Internet?

Theoretically, this type of service could have existed before the internet, and indeed it did. The social primitive is fan conventions, where b-list celebs would take photos with fans for a fee. But coordination problems limited scale, and lack of internet vitiated virality.

A mail-order version of Cameo could have existed in the pre-internet era — pick a celeb from a catalog, Fill out a form, send a check, and 8–12 weeks later, you’d get a VHS tape. Acquisition and logistics would have hurt margins, but it was theoretically possible.

Dot-Com era?

Cameo was *technically* feasible during the dot-com boom. JenniCam debuted in 1996, and an AOL website could have connected fans with celebs. However, at that time, the web was something you largely accessed at work. The tech was there, sort of, but the culture wasn’t ready.

Web 2.0?

By 2005, you could have stitched a Cameo clone together with early Web 2.0 tech — think YouTube videos embedded on MySpace with popular clips going “viral” on Fark. By this point, celebs could record in glorious 640 × 480 resolution clips on their iBooks!

Early App Store?

2010 brought the first iPhone with a front-facing camera. Facebook had grown to 500M+ users. The Old Spice Guy was a star. Amazon transacted $34B. TaskRabbit/Uber were creating talent marketplaces. The pieces were ready at this point, but the stars just weren’t aligned — yet.

By 2015, there were more/better iPhones with hi-def selfie cams. Most of the developed world was on the web. Marketplaces were the norm. By this point, there is no reason Cameo couldn’t have gotten started. But it took two years before the lightbulb went off for the founders.

Even then, it took three years of toil before the site really took off. It’s possible much of its success in 2020 had to do with COVID — character actors were out of work and large numbers of bored people created the perfect launch conditions.

You could argue that Cameo’s success was also contingent on the development of no-code tools. It’s probably not an accident that the founder was a talent agent and would have had a harder time getting it off the ground in an era with less baseline tech.

Still, the $100M idea behind Cameo, which will likely grow much larger, was just waiting there to be picked up for at least two years, maybe five. It was the proverbial $100M bill lying on the ground that economists assure us cannot exist. How many more are out there?

I took this trip through tech history as a reminder of how vital entrepreneurs are to our ecosystem. Many believe that technology has an inevitable arc. Products aren’t invented, as much as pulled from the ether. Founders are beneficiaries of lucky timing and little more.

The Cameo story shows how this isn’t true in a very small way. Silly as it is, Cameo is having a material impact on many people!

And this principle is also present in other categories.

If not for the Wright Brothers, someone would have invented the airplane, but it might have taken years, maybe decades longer. Their chief competitor, Samuel Pierpont Langley, was chasing a technical dead end. And if not for Kitty Hawk, when would we have had Cape Canaveral?

Similarly, all the iPhone’s constituent pieces had existed for years before Steve Jobs stitched them together. Our current mobile trajectory and the ecosystem it spawned was not apparent based on the established patterns of the industry, pre-iPhone.

Entrepreneurship brings us the future faster. Unfortunately, we aren’t Cameo investors, but if you’re working on something ahead of its time — or even better, a project that is long overdue — please reach out.

Contact@foundercollective.com

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