Patreon is a crowdfunding company that makes it possible for people to accept ongoing monthly donations, often in exchange for rewards. Many artists and and other creators (Patreon's preferred catchall term) use it to give their fans an easy way to support them. It's increasingly popular for content producers and consumers who prefer life outside the ad-supported world: Monthly active users number one million for patrons and 50,000 creators.

On Wednesday the four-year-old startup announced two significant expansions of its product, adding a Snapchat-like app called Lens and a "PRM," which stands for patron relationship manager and functions like a traditional CRM. Patreon is also partnering with Crowdcast to provide an easy livestreaming integration, and adding support for automated early-access posts on its platform. Lastly, Patreon is refreshing its visual brand, hoping to cultivate a more professional vibe.

Although Lens is the flashier announcement, the PRM is arguably more important. It marks Patreon's evolution from modular payments tool to true business infrastructure. Patreon doesn't just want to be a convenient way to process payments for gated content; it wants to act as a comprehensive way to run a membership business. "Other businesses have these standard tools and ways of visualizing the health and understanding their business that creators just don't have," according to CEO Jack Conte.

Beefing up its communication and publishing capacities with Lens, livestreaming, and early-access posts will also help Patreon serve as the "operating system" for the next generation of internet-native media companies. Those media companies will be centered around individuals, influencers of all stripes who have the kind of relationships with their audiences strong enough to monetize directly instead of relying on advertising.

The PRM is reminiscent of a simplified version of Salesforce or a similar CRM. It allows creators to take notes on conversations with different supporters, view their pledge history and lifetime pledge amounts, and segment patrons based on various attributes. "It's this huge sortable, filterable, searchable database with all your patron information in it," Conte explained. This offering is head-and-shoulders above the relationship management and analytics capabilities that previously existed within Patreon.

Lens is a bit like a dual clone of Snapchat and Instagram Stories, drawing aesthetic and functional cues from both. Its purpose is the same, although it's geared toward giving Patreon users another venue for interactions between creators and their audiences, rather than friends and family or random celebrities. Conte said that Lens and Patreon's main mobile app will eventually be merged together.

The idea is that if you financially support a certain artist, you might be interested in seeing snippets of their day, snapshots of works in progress, and other ephemeral content, some of it exclusive. Creators will be able to choose whether their posts are gated or public, and users will be able to follow creators without pledging to them. Creators will be able to see how many patrons have viewed a given post, and how much of their monthly revenue comes from that group.

The livestreaming integration with Crowdcast is a less momentous change to Patreon's product offerings, but CEO Jack Conte told Inc. that it signals the company's strategic direction. "They're using our API to allow patrons to log in with Patreon, into Crowdcast, and then creators can do patron-only livestreams -- not on Patreon, but on another platform," he said. "Which is sort of a hint at things to come with the future of Patreon and how we plan to reward patrons off of the Patreon platform itself."

Patreon already boasts a Discord integration that allows creators to easily launch patron-only chatroom communities. Massive platforms like YouTube and Twitch could conceivably integrate Patreon as well.

The startup is growing quickly. The number of monthly active patrons has doubled since May 2016, and the company says that it expects to pay $150 million to creators in 2017. However, that ballparks its own annual revenue at close to $8 million (since Patreon takes a 5 percent cut of pledges), if not less, given that the company has estimated that credit card processing fees account for 2 percent of the amount deducted from pledges.

Published on: Jun 14, 2017