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Passions, Platforms, Politics: A Conversation with Rosie Nguyen

Jasmine Sun

Rosie Nguyen is a cofounder and the chief creator officer of Fanhouse, a Series A startup that helps online creators monetize and build communities. She is also a content creator known on Twitter as @jasminericegirl.

Jasmine Sun is a cofounder and the director of Reboot. By day, she works on product research at Substack, a subscription publishing platform for independent writers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Content warning: This interview contains a reference to physical violence and sexual assault.

Becoming a Creator

Jasmine: A big part of your story with Fanhouse is your own experience as a creator. I ended up working at Substack for a similar reason: I was writing Reboot on the platform, unsuccessfully trying for a journalism job at the height of 2020’s COVID summer, and decided that building writer tools was the next best thing. But first, I’d love to hear how and why you got started as a “creator.”

Rosie: I became a creator mostly accidentally. I definitely didn’t grow up thinking: I am going to become a creator. While I was growing up, and through college, my mind was on survival — content creation didn’t really fit into that. It wasn’t a career track that would make money or provide for my family.

Twitter was just a hobby. I made my account in July of 2018, my sophomore year of college, and it was this screaming-into-the-void place for me to talk about the funny things that would happen in my life. I had a pretty rough life growing up, and humor was one of the ways I coped, and I put all those thoughts into Twitter. At one point, one of those thoughts went viral, and as they kept going viral, I got followers, and I realized that I really liked to share with people.

J: When you started Fanhouse, you were working full time, right?

R: I graduated from Penn in May 2020 and went into investment banking. In August, a month after I started banking, I began working on Fanhouse. For the next six months or so, I was doing both at the same time.

J: That sounds intense.

R: It almost seems like a fever dream. I don’t know how I did it, honestly — I think just pure will and passion.

Originally, my plan in college was to go into finance for a high-paying job that would give me the salary I needed to take care of my family. Then I met [my cofounder] Khoi, and we started getting excited about this idea for a creator platform that was everything I’ve ever wanted. At first, I was just going to do that on the side, but the more I worked on Fanhouse, the more I was like, Wait a minute, this is my dream job, and this is my passion. I eventually quit banking to do Fanhouse full time.

J: Because so much of what banking offered to you was financial security, was it a hard decision to start a company?

R: Yeah, so much. That’s why it took me six months to quit banking. I knew I hated investment banking from my first day on the job, and I knew that I loved Fanhouse my first day on the job, but I stayed for so long [with banking] because I was afraid. I knew I needed to provide for my family — I’m the only person in my family that makes an income — and the six-figure salary is really important. Fanhouse didn’t make any money, and we had no idea how long it would be until we could raise.

The decision came down to thinking about my worst case scenario. I got to the point where I couldn’t handle both jobs anymore — I felt like I was dying, my health was zero, and I needed to pick one. If I picked banking, my worst-case scenario is that I become really unhappy. If I picked Fanhouse, the worst-case scenario is that I make no money and go back to living the way I did in high school and college, when I didn’t own anything, skipped a lot of meals, never bought anything, and was always living day by day. Yet I had the realization that I would be happier working on Fanhouse and scrambling for money than having financial security and doing a job I didn’t love.

I went to my mom and was like, Can I talk to you about something? My mom looked at me, and was like, You want to quit your job, don’t you?, and I said Yeah. My parents were super supportive. They were just like, Go pursue this thing, we’re going to be fine. Even if you don’t have a ton of money for a while, we’re going to survive. Their support made the decision much easier.

But I never saw myself as a person who would risk it all to start a startup — that seemed like the last thing I would have wanted to do. I was very aware that I’m not somebody who has a safety net. For most of my peers, if they can’t find a job, maybe they can live at home. In my case, if I didn’t figure it out, it wasn’t just my ass on the line, it was my entire family’s. There’s a lot more stress and pressure, so I was honestly very against the idea of starting a startup. That was never, never ever in my plans.

J: I feel like so much of the fact that so few women, people of color, or people from low income backgrounds start startups is about who has safety nets and the mindset that a safety net trains you in. Meanwhile, folks who grow up wealthier and surrounded by people who start companies are told from the get go that it’s going to be worth it, that it’s totally fine.

Yet one thing that your experience with Fanhouse seems to show is that when people with a wider range of backgrounds start companies, it really impacts what you actually build and how that helps people. Somebody who wasn’t you — who didn’t have your experience of depending on creator income for survival — probably wouldn’t have designed Fanhouse the way that you did.

R: Identity absolutely matters in terms of the decisions people make, and it’s just because they understand and empathize. When there are more women on corporate boards, policies shift to be more family-friendly and inclusive.

Fanhouse is the only platform I know in the subscription or the social media space that has unique watermarks on content to prevent leaks. That’s a feature most of our creators have enabled because they don’t want private content being shared elsewhere. But when I was on OnlyFans or Patreon, they didn’t have this. For the longest time, I thought it was because it was hard to do, but when I ended up founding [the company], I realized how easy it was. We added watermarks in our first version of the app, and I realized that it was an active choice other platforms made not to include this.

I’m not only thinking about the business, but also about how this affects me personally, as a creator. I recently learned that about 80 percent of creator economy companies have completely male founding teams, but over 80 percent of creators are women. There’s a clear mismatch there between the people building and who they’re building for, so of course they’re not building the right things or asking the right questions.

Platforms, Policies, and Politics

J: In addition to your personal experiences and intuitions, how does Fanhouse incorporate the user community in the way you develop the product?

R: I’m just one person, but the rest of our team is made up primarily of creators. Our community manager is a creator; our engineers are creators; there are people who stream on Twitch or are stand-up comedians or tarot card readers. A good amount of them are on Fanhouse monetizing as creators too, so they’re building for people like them.

Beyond our team, we talk to creators endlessly. We read every email and every comment we get. The second I see something that’s important in the community, I’m able to share that with the team. For example, something I hear about a lot is whether we’ll be taking a crypto angle. Our team decides that by looking at how the creator community feels: What have these creators we know been saying? What do they feel, and do they like it?

J: I’m really curious about the crypto example because it’s something I’ve thought a lot about in my own work. The ideal version of web3 does seem more equitable in giving creators a concrete ownership stake in both the profits and the governance of a business, but what exists today is a long way from that ideal. How do you feel about crypto and the creator economy, and how is Fanhouse approaching it?

R: We don’t plan on doing anything with crypto for Fanhouse anytime soon, mainly because I don’t think we need to. We’re able to help creators as a web2 company.

The other reason is that creator sentiment is very negative on crypto. Crypto is not very accessible to the creator community or to people in general. Participating requires a lot of education, barriers, and resources — you have to have money to mint, or you have to have a crypto wallet and things the average person doesn’t have. If we’re trying to get creators paid, dollars are the easiest way to get there.

J: When we were talking about creator companies not having watermarks, you suggested that the reason they didn’t was probably because it could be bad for their bottom line. Is there any point at which you think that creators’ needs could come into tension with Fanhouse’s business goals?

One thing I’m thinking about is content moderation — even for really big companies like Facebook, it’s extremely expensive and technically complicated to hire tons of moderators or build automated tools that work. Given that Fanhouse is still a venture-backed startup with the business goals that structure entails, do you worry about it becoming too costly to do the things that you believe are right?

R: Of course there’s a balance between what we can do as a business and what creators want. If I had magic, I could wave a finger and put in every single feature people asked for, but some things are not possible for the team size that we have. For example, creators want us to build live streaming and I don’t think that can happen soon.

Instead, we ask: what is something else we could do that will be more beneficial for creators than live streaming? It’s always a tradeoff, but in the long term, when we do things that benefit our creators, it benefits the business. With watermarks, we get some fans complaining, I’m going to delete my account. Maybe we lose some short-term profits, but if we’re keeping creators safe, they’ll stay on the platform.

J: I’m curious why you think other creator platforms don’t make prioritization decisions in the same way. For instance, I’ve read interviews where you’ve talked about the amount of harassment you receive on Twitch and Twitter. Why don’t these other platforms prioritize anti-harassment? They too depend on people staying on the platform.

R: I’ll use League of Legends as an example. League is a video game I play a lot, but League has a horrible problem with toxicity in their community. It’s one of the worst, it makes you feel awful — there are people in-game telling you to kill yourselves and calling you all sorts of slurs. Those people get a slap on the wrist and get right back to playing the game. I’ve talked to people at Riot, and it’s because the people who are angry and toxic are the same people that play a lot and spend a lot of money. So Riot doesn’t benefit from getting rid of these people, and League is addicting enough that people stay on [despite the harassment].

Twitter benefits from [harassers] being on their platform. They make money from ad revenue, so creators are a side product.

Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram make money from ads. That’s why mass blocking isn’t a feature that Twitter has. I have to use third-party tools to mass block people harassing me, and even then, they can make new burner accounts and keep doing it. Honestly, I think it’s because Twitter benefits from those people being on their platform. They make money from ad revenue, so creators are a side product. They’re not the people that these platforms cater to.

As a company, we’ve decided that that’s just not ethically right. If we can help someone, we should. That just comes from being on these platforms and seeing how they treat creators.

J: It’s interesting how you frame it as partly a choice that companies make about their values, and partly a company’s business model and whether it’s set up to serve advertisers or creators. To get more specific, how do you approach content moderation and anti-harassment at Fanhouse?

R: We have a dedicated customer support team. It was one of the first teams we hired. If there’s any reports of harassment, a real person looks at those reports and will pause or deactivate accounts. That’s something I’m frustrated about with Twitter — I might report sexual harassment or an unsolicited dick pic, and a bot instantly responds, We have found that there was no violation of the Twitter Rules against abusive behavior.

At Fanhouse, there’s one person dedicated to leaks. She goes through subreddits and Discord channels and sends out DMCAs to take them down. There’s someone dedicated to looking through profiles to make sure that people aren’t violating content guidelines. As we scale, we’re also going to look into third-party tools.

In terms of features, we have things like phone number authentication (you can’t be on Fanhouse without a phone number) and the paywall (you have to put in your credit card just to follow someone). Even these are big deterrents to bad actors. Within the community, creators can set up [their own] moderators who can delete posts, timeout people, or remove people.

We give people these tools, but at the end of the day, the creator gets a lot of power to make their Fanhouse and remove anything that doesn’t make them feel safe.

J: There’s been a lot of discourse recently about free speech, social media, and whether it’s fair to have people who can decide what’s acceptable and unacceptable speech. Harassment versus free speech can feel like a fine line, and platforms that take action get accused of bias. How does Fanhouse decide what constitutes harassment?

R: Free speech is an interesting argument. The First Amendment originated when we were a colony, and Americans couldn’t talk badly about the British government. It’s important that we have the right to protest and speak up, but I don’t think free speech means that you’re allowed to harm or threaten or harass or stalk people.

The government should step in and do more about online harassment. They’re lagging so far behind on understanding what happens on social media. I’ve received death threats. I get sent photos of my house on Google Maps and people are like, I’m going to go there and find you and kill you or rape you. If you report that to the police, they won’t do anything about it because “nothing has happened yet,” so they can’t take action.That’s absurd! By the time something happens, it’s too late. I have friends where people actually flew out to where they lived or tried to meet up with them or follow them — that’s scary, frightening, and very dangerous.

Words are the first part of harm, and we need to stop it before it even gets to actions. If someone is threatening a creator, they need to go. That’s not free speech — that’s a crime. And if the government isn’t going to do something about it, then as a platform and as a founder, we get to decide that it doesn’t have a place on Fanhouse.

J: One thing I noticed from following your Twitter is that a lot of issues that you’re passionate about — safety online, economic inequality, women’s rights — are just as much about what happens in the courts — like Epic v. Apple or Roe v. Wade — as they are about decisions an individual company might be able to control. I’m curious about what you see as the role of companies versus politics and law as channels for change.

R: Most people try to do what’s right with the tools or resources that they can. As an individual, I have my voice and my Twitter. With Roe v. Wade being overturned, the first thing I did was tweet about how that hurt me or affected people I knew.

As a company, I don’t decide things on my own, but I share within the company — I’ll send a Slack message: Hey this is how I’m feeling. How is everybody else, and what do we want to do, or what can we do about this? Fanhouse sponsored one of our creators’ charity streams and matched all her donations to fund Texas reproductive rights.

It goes back to the first question — because I am who I am, because I am a creator and a woman and someone who cares deeply, I bring that to my work.

J: When I was in college, I talked to a lot of classmates who wanted to be founders. When we talked about whether companies should engage in politics or make donations to political causes, something I heard repeatedly was: If you’re a founder, your only duty is the fiduciary one to maximize profit for your shareholders. If there are issues, like misinformation or harassment, that’s the government’s job to step in – that’s not my job.

R: I think that’s the exact kind of belief that led to what happened with Facebook, and they bled out user trust. Facebook had this attitude that It’s not our duty to fact-check or make sure there’s no misinformation, and as a result, people were harmed. The Capitol riot is something that shocks me to this day — how is that something we allowed to happen because we did not regulate anything said online?

By founding a company, I’m able to impact so much more than I can as an individual, so why... would I stop at profits?

At the end of the day, there’s a lot of real people you affect, and the choices that you make are a very powerful thing. By founding a company, I’m able to impact so much more than I can as an individual, so why wouldn’t I try to create more good out of that? Why would I stop at profits?

J: What advice would you give to a young aspiring founder?

R: You should really build something that you believe in. I hope it doesn’t seem cliche, but I know so many founders — especially in the creator economy space or web3 — where I feel like they’re doing it because it’s a trend. They’re doing it because you can raise money, because VCs are interested, or because it seems sexy and cool. None of these are good reasons to found a company.

Founding a company is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I love it, but I feel like I’m underwater all the time, and the only reason I’m still here is because I love it so much. Take the mindset I was in: if you did this job in the worst case scenario, you’d be making no money for a long time. You’re scrambling to get by, your family needs your support, and you’re unable to give it to them. Would you still want to be doing this? Try to make sure your answer is yes, because if it’s not, you’re gonna find yourself in for a rough one.

If you’re going to found a company, please, please do what you love.