How a platform for customized celeb video messages is making the Internet a nicer place, one shout-out at a time


Today we have a returning guest on the podcast. I spoke with Steven Galanis, the co-founder and CEO of Cameo, a platform where fans can book personalized video messages from pop-culture stars.


Steve is a Glenview native who worked as an options trader, a film producer, and an account executive at LinkedIn before founding Cameo with his friend Martin Blencowe, a former NFL agent, and Devon Townsend, a Vine influencer who previously worked as an engineer at Microsoft.


Since it launched in February 2017, Cameo has grown to feature more than 4,300 reality TV stars, social media influencers, pro athletes, musicians –– anyone with a fan base. The company has grown from three to 26 employees and is preparing to move to their own West Loop space this December.


Here are a few takeaways from our discussion about Cameo’s rapid rise, combatting FOMO, and the great Philly cheesesteak debate.


  1. Money in politics could get a lot more transparent


“Sorry bro, I had good company at my office,” Steve texts me just before he arrives at the WGN studio for the podcast taping.


As it turned out, Kevin O’Leary, a.k.a. “Mr. Wonderful” of Shark Tank fame, just dropped by the fast-growing Chicago start-up’s 1871 office to talk Canadian politics. Eh?


“He’s a great guy. Kev’s been on the platform for about two weeks now,” Steve says as the episode gets underway. “I think he’s made like 15 or 20 grand. He’s killing it.”


I’m not surprised that O’Leary is already making bank on Cameo. But as Steve explains, Mr. Wonderful has bigger plans than charging $499 to wish your mom a happy birthday. He wants to tackle campaign finance.


Somehow, between managing an investment fund, launching a wine business and lambasting entrepreneurs on TV, Montreal native O’Leary ran for prime minister of Canada in 2017. And because our neighbors to the north keep private money out of elections, he ran up about $300K of debt that he has to pay back.


“He’s asked us to see if we could do something with the Canadian government to allow politicians to use Cameo to pay down their campaign finance debt,” says Steve. “It’s actually a really interesting idea. Maybe by 2020, instead of all these commercials, your feed’s just filled with people getting personalized Cameos from political candidates.”


Why not?


The possibilities seem endless. I’m pretty sure that Cameo is about to blow up. But not just because a custom celeb shoutout is the perfect holiday gift or because they were named one of “50 Genius Companies” by Time magazine.


It’s because it really does represent something new and different.


Sure, you can browse Cameo’s roster of talent and book a custom video for anywhere between $10 to $1,000 (depending, of course, on whether you’re requesting a Real Housewife, an NBA star or a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”).  But I think that as a platform, its potential is still untapped: “I think that five years from now, it will be not even remotely close to what you see today,” I tell him.


  1. Somebody’s got to be the new Snapchat


Everyone’s looking for the new social media app. I still buy shares of Snapchat even though I admit to Steve that “it’s totally f-cked as a platform.” Does Snap still present opportunities for innovation? Is it modeling the way that content will be produced and delivered as we enter the next decade? Maybe –– or it could be Cameo that’s closer to the mark. “They have the opportunity, just like you do, to reintroduce content consumption,” I tell Steve. “I legit think this is … if not the app, it’s the wave of the future.”


  1. It could stop the endless FOMO scroll


“If you pull back all the fancy tech, advertising, selling of people’s data and breaches by Russians, social media platforms really are just FOMO machines,” I say. “It’s just scrolling to see what my friends are doing, to compare whether their best version of themselves is, compared to me. Who gives a sh-t?”


I think Cameo might just inspire us to seek out more personalized, curated ways to engage with social media, starting with the YouTuber you love –– not passively observing the Kardashians or even your high-school crush. When I’m watching Instagram Live, it’s almost impossible for me ro stay put. “I’m there for the one person –– that weirdo that I dig,” I tell Steve.


  1. Cyber-bullying is so 2016


“Imagine how hard it would be to be a high schooler today,” says Steve. “You’re connected with all your friends on Snapchat and Instagram. It’s one thing if you might have about that party on Monday that you missed, but now they’re literally living it in real time and you’re watching all these people have fun. I can’t imagine.”


Cameo, he says, is all about positivity. There are only two rules on the platform: “No nudity and no inciting violence or cyber bullying. That’s it. Outside of that, it’s all positive messages. It’s getting your favorite person’s favorite person to say something to him.”


  1. #SponCon doesn’t always have to be cringeworthy


Social media influencers and brands go together like peanut butter and jelly. But creating sponsored content that feels authentic ––  not creepy –– is increasingly tricky.


“If advertising is killing content because it makes it … not neutral, this is totally different –– it flips it,” I tell Steve. It’s not hard to imagine Cameo as the latest channel for creative marketing campaigns. And according to Steve, there’s already been a promising use case.


“Potbelly just released a new sandwich, a Philly cheesesteak,” he says. “They started this debate on Twitter –– do you want provolone or do you want Cheese Whiz on your cheesesteak? Customers were chiming in, and it went viral. They started booking cameos from [comedian] Andy Milonakis and random people to respond to customers. You’d get Andy roasting you –– like, ‘come on dude, it’s provolone.’”


  1. It can take you places you’ve never been


“It’s the personalization that makes it really special, but it’s also the places that they’re doing it from,” Steve says of the videos Cameo talent create. “Probably my favorite I’ve ever seen happened last year. It was about 25 minutes before the Seattle Seahawks playoff game, and one of their defensive backs did a Cameo wishing a kid happy birthday –– 15 minutes before kickoff, in the locker room, for $15. The guys are getting hyped up, getting ready to go out and they’re like, ‘yeah, Joe, happy birthday –– we’re going to get this win for you.’ It’s unbelievable.”


The unpolished, off-the-cuff quality of Cameo shoutouts is part of the appeal in a highly FaceTuned world. “You’re getting human, natural, emotional things taking place in rooms and places I could never get into in my life,” I add.


“It’s funny you mention that,” says Steve. “When we were starting, we sat down with a branding agency in Miami and they asked us, if your brand was a person, who would it be? And the answer we gave is now the vision for the company.”


He goes on to describe it: “Imagine the most exclusive party in the world, and you somehow get in. There’s a red velvet rope, and behind it, literally every person you’ve ever wanted to meet in your entire life. You make eye contact with this guy that you met  years ago at a party. You know who he is, but you think there’s no way he remembers you. But he motions you over. He lifts up the velvet rope, and he introduces you to everyone you’ve ever wanted to know. That’s Cameo.”


No doubt, Cameo is onto something revolutionary!


This episode is sponsored by Bank of America and MB Real Estate.