Two months after Charli D’Amelio blew up on TikTok and in the middle of a full-blown pandemic, 18 entrepreneurs packed their bags and hopped on a flight to Tulum, Mexico. This was the first iteration of Launch House.1 Conceived by entrepreneurs Michael Houck, Brett Goldstein, and Jacob Peters, Launch House bills itself as a “month-long co-living experience for the most exciting founders.” However, co-living isn’t the only part of Launch House’s thesis. For Houck, Goldstein, and Peters, Launch House is a way of tapping into a new class of founder-influencers.
It all began as a joke. After seeing TikTok influencers go viral and assemble into various Hype House spinoffs, Houck, Goldstein, and Peters asked themselves, “what if there was a TikTok influencer house for the tech industry?” The three of them had met as part of the On Deck fellowship,2 a ten week virtual program which connects founders to co-founders, mentors, and investors to explore different startup ideas. There, they recognized that many of their founder friends craved spaces to connect and build in person, and they were willing to validate this idea by renting out a house.
“At the end of On Deck, there were a lot of amazing ideas, the right ideas,” Goldstein explained. “Later, we would see some get built and get a lot of funding, but I was also seeing people who didn’t feel the agency to actually make a move.” He wanted more founders to get into “the mindset of launching things,” espousing the belief: “the more you launch, the better you are.” Houck, Goldstein, and Peters hoped Launch House would help push more founders to do so.
The first iteration of their experiment worked; the first 18 Launch House participants launched more than nine products3 during the month-long program. These products included Compose.ai,4 an AI-powered email writer; $Thanks,4 a “thank you” Twitter bot; Mindstreaks,5 a Strava for meditation; and more. However, while Launch House 1 successfully encouraged members to launch products, three members violated visitation rules and contracted Covid-19.
In the second iteration, they made sure to tighten restrictions and began building an online presence. Goldstein scraped together a website and ran a full application cycle; soon, they were populating their Instagram with poolside brainstorming videos,6 house tours,7 and behind-the-scenes content.8
For their third and current iteration, the Launch House founders decided to move to Los Angeles, where they rented out Paris Hilton’s Beverly Hills Mansion. This move reflects their pivot back to their original thesis: connecting influencers to startup founders to streamline product distribution, or how companies get products into the hands of consumers. Launch House 1 had focused on encouraging founders to build and launch together. By Launch House 2, Houck, Goldstein, and Peters had begun to build an online presence. And, with their third house, they now hope to bring in influencers and media professionals to help produce even more content.
“By moving to LA, we’re positioning ourselves to capitalize on proximity to influencers,” Goldstein said. “The ideal world is that Griffin from Sway House comes in and he’s like, ‘I love this product. I’m going to tweet about it. I’m going to talk about it. And I’m going to blow you right up and make it big.’” We want to bridge that gap [between founders and influencers] in a more meaningful way.”
For Launch House 3, Houck, Goldstein, and Peters plan on reserving one room in the house for guests to crash in: guests who are investors, founders, and influencers. “We want to replicate this kind of college dorm style situation without it being a college dorm,” Goldstein explained. Meanwhile, they’ll be staffing their house with cameramen to record and produce media content, such as vlogs and digital interviews. By making content production a priority, they are also exploring a different aspect of their founder-influencer hypothesis, one in which the founder becomes the influencer themself.
“The idea is that this isn’t a reality show. This isn’t something annoying for the drama, this is basically creating a stage or a set for the most exciting and interesting conversations that already are happening in the tech industry but in a more interesting, authentic way,” Goldstein said.
Whether it’s pairing founders with influencers or turning founders into influencers, Houck, Goldstein, and Peters are attempting to expedite product distribution. Influencer-turned-founder initiatives have largely been successful, mostly because of an influencer’s ability to tap into their fanbase to establish a consumer base. Makeup artists such as Patrick Starr, Manny Mua, and Jeffree Star have been able to build independent cosmetics companies; Jenn Im, a YouTube fashion guru, launched a clothing line Eggie which sold out almost instantly; and MrBeast, a YouTube personality and philanthropist, just opened his own fast food chain of 300 delivery-only burger restaurants last December.
“Most founders think that it’s all product. And actually, the more you build companies, the more you realize it’s all distribution,” Goldstein said. “These influencers have distribution, these founders have product. We’ve got to put them together.”
Some startups, such as Monet Dating,9 have been able to solve their own distribution difficulties by going semi-viral. Launched in October 2020, Monet Dating is a dating app for Gen-Z where users draw pictures for each other in order to make the first move. They went semi-viral on TikTok, with videos on #MonetDating amassing over 1.4 million views to date. So far, all users on Monet have been acquired without paid advertising.
“We talked about going viral as like a funny thing that could happen,” co-founder Joanna Shan, a student on leave from UPenn, noted. “We were thinking we wanted 200 beta users before we launched, and eventually in a span of two weeks we hit around 10,000.”
Similar to Launch House’s founder-influencer thesis, Shan joked that “if we just use this to get famous, we are the influencers that we would be paying to do influencer marketing.”
The team has no plans of intentionally becoming influencers as of now, though. Their TikTok accounts are “more just for fun,” Shan said. Shan attributes their product’s early traction to TikTok’s community and their ability to develop a strong message that brands Monet as a low stakes, Gen-Z dating app. From a December profile of Monet8, the platform reported that 94.2% of users were between the ages 18 to 24.
“I want to build on our brand of being fun, being youthful, and being creative,” Shan reflected. “Inherently, by putting ourselves out there, we became part of the story behind the product. It just became building in public.”
Goldstein also emphasized the importance of having a mission-focused story for successful distribution. “Uber, for example, was more efficient, but it was also on the heels of the financial crisis where you were trying to get back at these awful centralized institutions like the taxi cartel,” Goldstein said. “People were struggling to make ends meet, and Uber came along and said, hey, we’re going to have a platform to change that, to help you.”
There are standard techniques of achieving viral distribution: aggressive referral campaigns, clever product bundling, social media challenges or raffles, to name a few. But to build truly sustainable initiatives, products must be driven by a strong message and story. For Launch House, their founders hope that pairing influencers with founders not only allows founders to distribute products more effectively, but also encourages more potential founders to begin building.
“We do want to build in public. It’s because of what’s going on in the world. This is one of the most disempowered group of humans that have ever existed,” Goldstein said. “But at the same time, technology has enabled people to have incredible control over their lives and their financial situations. There are all these no code builders or Substack writers or YouTubers who are launching products in months, days, or weeks, or over a year, being able to sustain their own income […]. And we believe that more people should hear that story so they can be inspired to go and do that for themselves.”
Correction: This story has been updated to credit Jacob Peters as a cofounder of Launch House.