Cody Ko, a YouTube star with 5.7 million subscribers, found herself in a pickle in May. Two different startups wanted to give him shares, and he feared they were potentially competitive deals.
So Mr. Ko called for advice from someone he trusted: Li Jin.
Ms. Jin, a venture capitalist, suggested Mr. Ko, 30, speak honestly and openly to the founders of both startups about potential conflicts of interest. He agreed and ended up only pursuing one of the deals.
“I would never hesitate to contact her if I need anything,” he said of Ms. Jin.
If there is such a thing as an it girl in venture capital these days, Ms. Jin, 31, would take that into account. She sits at the interface between startup investing and the rapidly growing ecosystem of online creators, both of which are brand new. And while she started her own venture firm, Atelier Ventures, just last year and raised a relatively small $ 13 million for a fund, Ms. Jin was one of the first Silicon Valley investors to take influencers seriously and write about creators she has supported years.
As a Harvard graduate who was inspired by the ideas of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Ms. Jin is also aggressively pro-worker. She has made it clear in podcasts and her Substack newsletter that YouTubers should be given the same rights as other workers. One of the ideas she has championed is a “universal creative income” that would guarantee creators a basic amount to live on.
Now that big venture capital firms are flocking to influencer startups and launching Facebook, YouTube, and other $ 1 billion creator funds, Ms. Jin’s track record has made her a go-to business guru for many digital stars made trying to find their way around the rapidly changing landscape.
Hank Green, 41, a top creator on YouTube and TikTok, said he often tossed ideas with her over the phone. Markian Benhamou, 23, a YouTuber with over 1.4 million subscribers, credits her with understanding what YouTubers are going through. Marina Mogilko, 31, a YouTube creator in Los Altos, Calif., Said Ms. Jin “started the entire creator economy movement in Silicon Valley.”
“She talked about the creator economy for years and years before anyone else,” said Jack Conte, co-founder and CEO of Patreon, a crowdfunding site for content creators. “She really sees the future before others do.”
Ms. Jin, who has invested in Substack and Patreon, said that although her fund was small, she planned to put all of the money into companies that are transforming online work. “Everything I invest in is a creator-focused company,” she said. “I think the impact I’m having is out of proportion to the dollar amounts.”
Her credibility has been increased because she is also a creator. Ms. Jin is a frequent contributor to her Substack newsletter, leads an online course teaching founders how to invest in startups, and has created Side Hustle Stack, a free resource to help influencers find and rate platforms that they can use.
Beijing-born Ms. Jin immigrated with her family to the United States when she was 6, where her father received a PhD in economics from the University of Pittsburgh. Her early years in the country were meager, she said until her father dropped out of school and got a job. Her family eventually moved to Upper St. Clair, a town of about 20,000 people outside of Pittsburgh, where Ms. Jin attended a public school and enjoyed painting and writing.
At Harvard, she studied English and continued her creative activities. But at the urging of her family, who she said “wanted financial security for me,” Ms. Jin switched to statistics major and did internships in banking and corporate marketing. After briefly working for Capital One after college, she moved to Silicon Valley at the age of 23 to work as a product manager at Shopkick, a purchase rewards app.
In 2016, Ms. Jin landed at the Silicon Valley venture company Andreessen Horowitz. At the time, the company was heavily focused on investing in marketplaces like Airbnb and Rappi, the Instacart of Latin America.
Ms. Jin was fascinated by how different marketplaces work and wrote a lot about them for the Andreessen Horowitz blog. She also started thinking about how different marketplace systems could evolve to help people build businesses on the internet.
This led Ms. Jin to advocate the influencer industry. It felt personal to watch YouTubers make a living online, she said, while also seeing great potential in working online and in the YouTubers as a business.
Your confirmation is meaningful, said influencers. “Your work at this big, traditional company and these things felt like someone was finally saying it,” said Mr. Green, the YouTube star.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck last year and the world began to grow online, Ms. Jin saw an opportunity.
“I felt like Covid was going to speed up online-based work and people who want to become entrepreneurs,” she said. “I realized that I had the opportunity to create an entirely new fund dedicated to this dissertation that would be at the forefront of advancing the nature of work and work on the Internet.”
In May 2020 she left Andreessen Horowitz and founded Atelier Ventures. She has since invested in startups like PearPop, which influencers can use to capitalize on their social interactions, and Stir, which helps YouTubers manage their finances. She is one of the few investors who big influencers know by name.
“When you talk to someone who works in the creator economy, they all say, ‘Oh, you need to talk to Li Jin,'” said a creator named Jasmine Rice, 23, a former OnlyFans influencer who runs a platform called. founded Fanhouse, which Ms. Jin invested in last year.
Ms. Jin has also publicly criticized the means YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat offer influencers to create content for their platforms. She has pleaded with the tech industry to “stop” the funds from calling them “bread and games”, arguing that the creators needed owners of the platforms that made money from them.
“Without ownership, creators ultimately enrich and empower * someone else * – platform owners – with their work,” Ms. Jin tweeted in June.
Ms. Jin said the platforms need to be careful “not to restore a lot of the economic disparities that exist in the broader economy, rather than really empowering a new generation of online entrepreneurs.” She calls a podcast moderated by her “Means of Creation”, a piece about Marx’s means of production.
Her views have made her a fascinating topic in the tech industry and left wing political space. The responses to her social media posts are full of memes suggesting that she is a socialist. Ms. Jin said she was most amused by the hustle and bustle.
“I’m very careful not to use this word, the S-word,” she said of socialism. “It polarizes unnecessarily in the USA”
Ms. Jin said that she also believes in crypto networks because they are decentralized and “want to give control and ownership to their users”. She has started investing in crypto-related platforms and recently supported Mirror, a decentralized publishing platform, and Yield Guild Games, which is building a gaming guild for the “metaverse” to help people in developing countries make money from video games. It has also partnered with creators to mint and sell works of art as NFTs or non-fungible tokens.
“My whole life has been bubbling with awareness,” she said, “that the world is unjust and that we have to push it towards justice and fairness.”
Since starting Atelier Ventures, Ms. Jin has moved out of Silicon Valley and managed her fund from her nursery in Pittsburgh. This summer she was nomadic and traveled the world surrounded by a changing cast of internet stars, artists, Gen Z tech founders and crypto pioneers.
In July, she hosted a jam-packed happy hour on a roof in New York City, attended by a who’s who of internet culture and tech geeks, including the founders of the NFT platform OpenSea, product people from TikTok and Twitter, and other investors. From New York she flew to a crypto conference in Paris and hosted a “Creator Salon” in a café on the left bank.
She then flew to Greece at the invitation of Daniel Ek, the managing director of Spotify, and later attended a beach dinner organized by the Brilliant Minds Foundation with Emma Watson, Nicky Hilton and others.
She has since gone home to Pittsburgh to regroup and reflect.
“It’s just so unlikely that I’ll be here,” Ms. Jin said, “that I was born in Beijing and speak Chinese as my first and only language, and something brought me to the US and now I have the tools to do it to be able to “have a voice and influence.”