The app with the unprintable name that wants to give power to creators

LOS ANGELES — Six years ago, Lindsey Lee Lugrin, a budding social media creator and model, was given the chance to be featured in a Marc by Marc Jacobs ad campaign. She was paid $1,000.

Lugrin was thrilled. But after seeing her face plastered on billboards and in ads across the internet, she realized she had undervalued herself.

As she spoke with more influencers, who create social media posts for brands in exchange for payment or a cut of advertising fees, Lugrin became aware of other pay disparities. Male creators earned an average of $476 per post and women $348, according to an analysis last year by Klear, an influencer marketing platform.

Lugrin, now 30, was determined to change that. So in June, she and Isha Mehra, 25, a former Facebook data scientist, introduced an app with an unprintable name: F*** You Pay Me. It functions as a kind of Glassdoor for influencers, where creators can leave reviews of brands they have worked with, share ad rates and give and get other crucial information for negotiating sponsored-content deals. The aim: to have creators be paid more equitably.

The in-your-face name was deliberate, Lugrin said. “I didn’t want there to be any doubt from the creator side of things who this is for,” she said. “The name is an ode to the frustration I experienced myself many times over as a creator.”

FYPM, which is based in Santa Monica, California, is one of several companies now aiming to bring pay transparency to influencers, whose field is one of the fastest growing among small businesses in the United States. It’s part of a shift where creators are increasingly trying to assert themselves in their business dealings with brands and gain a more level playing field.

Among the tools that have proliferated are Collabstr, a marketing platform that lets creators post brief biographies about themselves and list their pay rates. Social media pages like Brands Behaving Badly, We Don’t Work for Free and Influencer Pay Gap call attention to bad deals and potentially exploitative brands.

Creators have also bonded in online communities like Creative Gal Gang, where female influencers in Britain and Ireland trade horror stories and offer peer support. Some creators have also begun selling courses to teach others how to negotiate better rates.

“Creators need to realize we have the power,” River Johnson, 29, a creator in Half Moon Bay, California, said of the relationship between influencers and brands. “They need us, not the other way around.”

Brands have long had an upper hand with influencers. Most creators operate without a manager or an agent. There are no standard pay rates for creating a post for a brand or running digital advertising alongside their videos and posts. Brand deals are negotiated through a messy mix of direct messages and emails.

Creators are also typically single-person businesses that act as media and marketing mini-agencies all in one. They conceive, shoot, edit, promote and write all of their own content, sometimes with the support of a spouse or partner, across multiple social platforms every day. It can be time-consuming and grueling work that results in burnout.

And while brands generally have a lot of information on creators — influencer marketing platforms allow companies to sort and filter through millions of influencers by follower count, demographic and social media platform — creators have little information on brands and what they pay.

Isha Mehra, left, and Lindsey Lee Lugrin  created an app where online influencers can share information in a collective effort to raise their pay. (Amanda Hakan / The New York Times)

That ruffled Lugrin. A native of Houston, she earned a master’s degree in finance from the University of Houston in 2018 and became an equity analyst. Outside her day job, she built up her online persona with the handle @msyoungprofessional, posting relatable humor and memes about being a woman in the business world.

Lugrin eventually gained over 16,000 followers and started making brand deals with fashion companies and startups. But the lack of information for negotiating pay frustrated her.

When she lost her job in the spring of last year during the pandemic, she decided to do something about it. She began conducting market research and harvesting information from creators about their brand deals.

In October, Lugrin posted a blog post announcing FYPM, which, she wrote, was “birthed out of rage.” Taking aim at influencer marketing platforms, she said most were “really just another platform designed to help more business owners exploit influencer talent, but in a new ‘innovative’ way!”

After building a prototype of FYPM, she was accepted in March into a 10-week startup incubator program in Taiwan led by Backend Capital, a venture capital firm. There she met her co-founder, Mehra, who was on the hunt for her next challenge.

“I wanted to use technology for good,” Mehra said. “I saw FYPM as a perfect way to tackle pay inequality.”

FYPM is already on the radar of brands. James Nord, CEO and founder of Fohr, an influencer marketing company that has paid out over $65 million to creators in the past five years, said he supported Lugrin’s mission but hoped more nuance could be incorporated into the platform as it grew.

“It can lead to some creators having false expectations of what their pay could be because they hear about one person who booked one job at one specific price,” he said.

FYPM, which is still being tested, allows users to filter brand deals by platform such as Twitter, Clubhouse, Substack, Instagram and OnlyFans. Creators can also sort by location, niche and brand category, such as travel or food and drink.

So far, about 1,500 creators have posted more than 2,000 reviews of 1,300 brands on FYPM. Lugrin and Mehra have raised a small amount of funding and plan to do more fundraising.

On the app, a review of Fishbowl, a networking platform, recently told creators to ask for more money. “There’s room in the budget, so make sure to negotiate,” it said.

Another review, of the Coldest Water, a water-bottle company, warned creators about the pay: “Offered $600 for 6 videos on my tiktok account with over 2 million followers. ‘free’ water bottle included and then a 10 percent commissions sale. turned it down because they had low pay and it felt borderline scammy.”

Kyle McCarthy, head of growth at the Fishbowl, said the company was “committed to fair pay.”

Daniel Herrold, 47, a creator in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who is focused on divorce and lifestyle content, said FYPM had been a lifeline.

“I started to get approached six months ago by random brands,” he said. “The challenge for me and anyone else in the space is that I don’t even know what a market deal is.”

Data collected by FYPM so far shows that meme pages, which post humorous or visually-oriented content, and pet influencers are most likely to undersell themselves. YouTube creators earn the most.

Food and beverage brands pay the most, beating out beauty, lifestyle and fashion companies. About 55% of creators on FYPM reported being paid in cash, while others were offered “exposure” or free products. Half received nothing for their work, Lugrin said.

Creators who speak out about lack of payment can be attacked. When a brand tried to lowball Tori Dunlap, 27, a TikTok creator with over 1.6 million followers, in November, she created a TikTok about it.

“I went on TikTok and was like, ‘Brands, you need to stop doing this,’” she said. But “I got death threats. I got people messaging me, ‘Sit down and shut up’ and ‘You entitled insert-terrible-word here.’”

Many creators are women and people of color, Dunlap added, so brands are taking advantage of these broader communities.

“We all have to talk to each other and say, ‘This brand reached out to me — what did they offer you?’” she said.

Lugrin said she hoped FYPM would help make life as a creator more profitable for everyone, including those without millions of followers or money to fall back on.

This “is about the future of work,” she said.