How the Curator Economy shapes today’s products

Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

Lots of credible, thousand-share articles out there start with some overwhelming data. So will I:

  • More than 500 hours of videos are uploaded to Youtube every minute. Since the average length of a video is about 11.7 minutes, there are more than 2500 new pieces of content each minute passes by.
  • 29 versions of the iPhone have been released since 2007, so on average, we have 2 new models each year (haha I’m such a mean person). Triple that and we get the number of new Samsung phones each year (they have series A, Z, S, Note so I’m confident tripling makes sense here). And let’s not forget we still have Nokia, HTC (before they sold themselves to Google…), Xiaomi, LG, OPPO, One Plus (no, I don’t forget you), Huawei, Pixel… Hundreds of new phone models are released each year.

What do the two data points above tell us? Our advanced technology has empowered humans to create more products than ever (products as in the sense of everything around us, from physical to digital).

There are just so many new products out there that transcend our human capabilities to know all of them. The problem, now so drastically different from a decade ago, is not “what to do/eat/watch/listen to” but “what is the BEST THING to do/eat/watch/listen to WITHIN MY LIMITED TIME AND ATTENTION”

And that is how the Curator Economy was born.

What’s the Curator Economy?

The Curator Economy was born out of people’s time and attention deficit. People are already drowned in problems, and they don’t want to spend hours finding the needle in a haystack, because there are too many solutions out there.

Analysis paralysis leads us to the unavoidable choice: to look for people who have tried the solutions and can give us recommendations of the best one to choose.

As the search engines have been notoriously blamed for showing content that maximizes advertising revenue and tracking user’s search results for more personalized ads, the paradigm shift to human content curation grows much stronger.

Take a random popular Youtuber and we can see that the most viewed videos are often the “Top N” or the “Best” of something.

Best cars to buy, best places to visit, best books to read, best songs of 2021…

A “Curator” is originally defined and widely known as “A person in charge of the objects or work of art in a museum or an art library” (Cambridge, Oxford, Merriam Webster). But in today’s world, the definition for this profession has expanded both horizontally and vertically.

“Horizontally” because a curator is not limited to the museum or library anymore, but almost all the industries and interests.

“Vertically” because a curator nowadays is not only “in charge” but also give recommendations, opinions, and sometimes represent the mass to give feedback to product creators (look at MKBHD – his opinions on phones are surely considered by manufacturers).

Though this expansion in meaning is highly debated and opposed by artists in the art world, we cannot deny its growing existence in modern days. There are many psychological reasons behind the adoption of curating practices in our lives: It gives us a sense of self-determination and the feeling of control, just to name a few.

The term “Curated” has gained more popularity in recent years.
Image source: Google Trends

The Curator Economy is where curators can make a living out of experimenting and sharing the best products out there for everyone. They act as a bridge between the Creators and the Consumers, bringing the best of the best products into the light.

A high-ranked Curator can also become a reliable channel of distribution for Creators (more on that later) and sometimes they are even more well-known than the Creators due to their resourcefulness and (bless them) their charm or sense of humor.

If we look at the adoption curve, the Curators are the Early Adopters who don’t hesitate to spend time and take risks just to try out new products (or heck, just to consolidate the reviews of others). Those Early Adopters have created an economy of their own, benefiting directly from the rise and fall of the Innovator’s products.

How does the Curator Economy shape today’s products?

Giving rise to library-like products

Back then when the Internet is not available, where would you often go for knowledge? Libraries.

To make use of people’s thirst for knowledge and resources, especially when the Internet has grown limitless while people’s attention shrinks pathetically, library-like products were born.

I humbly coin this term to represent the products that gather the best resources on the Internet in a specific niche. They are often in the form of web apps where you can download/use certain types of materials that are manually curated to solve your own problems.

Startup Stash – A directory of tools and resources for startups – is a perfect example of s library-like product

For example, a problem designers often come across is to think of a beautiful color palette for their apps. Theoretically, they can do that by spending hours mixing and matching different color codes to create a harmonic combination. But they are not paid to do JUST that, right? The return on investment, in that case, would be too low.

That’s where products like Colorhunt.io (released 2015) or Coolors.co (released 2014) jump in. They provide (or even generate) a wide range of color palettes for you to choose from. Absolutely no-brainer!

From my observation, these Library-like products are growing in number for the past 5-7 years.

Let’s take a look at the Product Hunt leaderboard (Product Hunt is a website to share and discover new products):

Image source: https://pragli.com/leaderboard-for-product-hunt/

5 out of 10 best-ranked products on Product Hunt since 2013 are library-like products (Startup Stash, Startup Pitch Decks, Pexels 2.0, Coolors, Good Email Copy)

In 2021, 4 out of 45 best-ranked products are library-like (OpenVC, Brainiac, First 1000, Streamline 4.0)

The rise of the Curator Economy also increases the demand for well-curated newsletters. A quick search on Google reveals that articles recommending and encouraging curated newsletters only started to emerge for the past 2 years (adding “2018 to your search keyword and you’ll see no result”)

The fact that there are newsletters/services out there that make nearly half a million per year like The Browser or Lenny’s Newsletters (~3000 paid subs, nearly $450k ARR), plus the crazy growth of curation-enabling tools like Substack, Ghost, Scoop.it, Paper.li or Curated.co further justifies the existence of the Curator Economy.

Even free curated newsletters are spreading like wildfire as a means for lesser-known writers to brand themselves and for the big names to retain their user’s engagement with the main product. Take Medium for example, who launched The Marker blog and The Buy/Sell/Hold newsletters in 2019 (highly recommended for business folks!), which quickly gained the appreciation of over 94,000 subscribers.

Look at the number of links in a typical Buy/Sell/Hold newsletter! I can spare them to read for a whole week.

Signals of the Curator Economy are everywhere.

Templates from community

This section zooms in the industry of SaaS products, especially highly customizable tools. The examples below will focus on documentation tools like Notion, Coda, and Airtable since I’m their heavy user.

Documentation tools (or customizable tools) have a very special trait: they don’t give users the final result. They just give them the recipe and the users are free to cook whatever they desire and however they want.

The un-parallelled flexibility comes at a cost: over-choice. Users don’t know what setup will work best for them. They are, after all, business owners who want to get things done and make money, not indulging in playing minecraft in real life.

If any, this is a critical user onboarding problem that can make or break the adoption of such tools. Left alone, and the users would feel too overwhelmed to get started, and it’s likely they will never reach that magical “aha” to be willing to pay.

I doubt the brilliant minds behind Notion, Coda and Airtable didn’t foresee this. I don’t know how much the Curator Economy impacts their choice of solution, but somehow it takes a surpringly similar form to the curated newsletters above.

They provide templates.

Airtable was launched in 2012, but not until 4 years ago did they release a so-called Airtable Universe – a place for world-renowned creators/businesses to share the templates that accompany them to their professional success (I’m not exaggerating, take a look at their intro post for Universe)

Oh okay, I see Zapier and Campaign Monitor over there.
Image source: https://airtable.com/universe

Notion, launched in 2018, just recently updated their Gallery Template to include the templates of famous creators in the world, like Ali Abdaal’s Book Note, or Thomas Frank’s Video project tracker. Of course, Notion did not forget the companies whose prestigious brands lend some power to its growth. The team dedicated a whole page where they shared the stories and templates used by brands like Figma or Mix Panel.

Figma also uses Notion? I better introduce this to my company.
Image source: https://www.notion.so/customers

And so did Coda, and well they did.

This curation of the best templates kills two birds with one stone.
Customer-wise, it will reduce the new users’ building and exploring time. Company-wise, it improves the brand’s credibility because literally they are standing on the shoulder of THOUSANDS OF GIANTS. We might not be convinced of the tool’s usefulness, but the glory of many brands out there who adopted this tool might make us think again.

Hm… Don’t ask me why I drew a man for Figma and a woman for Mixpanel. Totaly random.

This trend can also be observed in other industries like email marketing (where they curate the best email templates) or design (leading by Canva with their well-curated libraries of templates).

Image source: https://www.canva.com/templates/

Consumers as a part of the growth engine

Many services are shifting their “curating power” to end-users by letting them create their own list of content and share that collection with more people, many of whom might become potential users in the long run.

Such services are enabling both The Sticky and Viral Engine of Growth (as defined by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup).

The essence of curating is reading/watching/listening LATER, so the more user curates, the more content waiting to be consumed in their free time. If the user keeps getting value as they use the product, they are more likely to come back to use it. It’s worth noting that these services are storing people’s data (whose precious purpose is to help the consumers become better) so it’s even harder to leave the platform.

The consequently high retention rate equals a stable stream of revenue for the service, fueling the Sticky growth engine.

After curating content comes the need to share. Sharing has many benefits. It is a way for people to express their passion or interest in something (“hey, look at how much I read bout dogs this year”). It’s also a way for seniors to pass down knowledge to their juniors. It can even be a means of acquiring people’s attention for commercial purpose (read on to see how I leveraged Raindrop to grow my subscribers)

The more people share and the more credibility they get, the more fresh eyeballs for the services. This is the Viral growth engine.

Please note that even though curated newsletters are one type of curation service, their model is not applicable in this case.

With newsletters, the consumers take the passive role of reading and (if their mood allows) sharing, but they do not become the curator themselves. With the curation services I’m about to share below, they are both the consumer and curator.

Medium’s Reading List
I remember 3 years ago there was no “Reading list” feature on Medium. It was called “Bookmarked” back then, with the sole purpose of saving articles for later reading. Now, the “Reading list” feature allows me to group articles of different topics together AND share them on social media.

Image source: Medium

Even if you are not a Medium user, you can still access my list and read the free articles. I don’t know how much this feature contributed to their user base, but I’m pretty sure this is one of their effort to regain popularity after their scandalous history in 2017 and 2018.

Bookmarking services
I started using Raindrop in January 2021, and I was taken aback by how well-designed the Sharing feature was. With a simple URL, my friends can access all the great articles I hand-picked from the Internet.

The “sharing” site was very easy to understand and navigate. It’s good to see the developers keep polishing them as I use:

I am growing my own newsletter and the Sharing feature was a perfect subscriber magnet. I curated the best 100 articles I read in 2020 and shared them on social media in exchange for my friends’ email. To my very surprise, my subscriber base almost tripled.

Other bookmarking services for your reference: Instapaper, Pocket

I’m fairly confident that with a single share, I’ve helped Raindrop reach a few hundred potential users.

Some ideas

I have always been wondering the feasibility of adding and sharing “Saved places” in ride-hailing apps and food delivery apps.

When I come to a new city, I often have to ask a local friend or someone who visited it before for the best places to visit/eat. Most of the time they would have to rack their brains or give me a note they stored on their device. The problem with this is that I have to do one extra step: to search for them to (1) see if they really are the places I want to go or (2) how to get there. Also, the notes may get buried under new notes and the next time if I’m the one asked to give recommendations, I would be stuck.

I saw so many people worked around the problems by saving their favorite places in Google Maps. But it has clear limitations: we know how to get there (2), but we don’t know if they have good reviews (do you trust faked SEO reviews on Google??). Since there are a lot of people make do with that hassle, there clearly is a need.

As ride-hailing apps and food delivery apps become a more indispensable part of our life (especially due to this pandemic), why don’t we let users curate their own list of places (preferably grouped by different themes)? By sharing this, they not only show they’ve got a unique “taste”, they also market the brand for free.

Demo app: Grab

This hypothetical feature will allow users to “own” a part of the app (the top places I want to visit is my own verdict rather than being promoted by a revenue-maximizing algorithm). This idea can be developed into communities where people can see each other’s curated lists. Hallelujah, better engagement!

Personally, I started to actively engage with IMDB and Goodreads in recent years because they introduced the exact feature. With Watchlist (IMDB) and Listopia (Goodreads), I use these two platforms to save my to-watches/to-reads and also seek new movies/books from other people (who have similar tastes)

Final humble thoughts

Technology is getting more advanced than ever, but people’s lives, paradoxically, don’t get any freer. Therefore, I believe the important role of human Curators is here to stay. If companies can integrate the Curator’s effect inside their app (like the example of Medium or Notion above), it’s likely they will enlarge their user base faster.

I’m also curious about how products with human-centric recommendations will rise to this occasion. I’m seeing ambitious startups like Centroly and Beyond claiming to go head-to-head with the current revenue-driven algorithm. Will the big guys respond? I don’t know. But if I were them, I would have felt some chill down the spiral already.

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