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OnlyFans is the $2 Billion Sleeping Giant of Media

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As Cardi B prepared the release for her new song “WAP,” she checked off all the usual components of her promotional plan, including magazine covers, Instagram posts and a raunchy YouTube video. Then she added one more: OnlyFans, a site where people charge admirers for special access to videos and photos.

OnlyFans is closely associated with adult models. Many of its most popular creators are attractive women who use it to titillate men willing to pay a few extra dollars for a particular image. But Cardi B is part of a small but growing number of more traditional celebrities turning to OnlyFans to make a little extra revenue, raise money for charity or connect with followers in a new way.

In her first material for the site, posted on Aug. 12, Cardi B uploaded a video from behind the scenes of her photo shoot for the cover of Elle magazine. A few weeks later, she shared footage from the making of her “WAP” music video. The post went on to generate a couple thousand likes on OnlyFans and almost $1,000 in tips.

“When Beyoncé rapped about us on the ‘Savage Remix’ and Cardi B joined the platform, that’s when we really started to see the growth accelerate,” said Tim Stokely, 37, the company’s founder and chief executive officer. According to Stokely, OnlyFans is adding as many as 500,000 users a day and paying out more than $200 million a month to its creators.

Along the way, OnlyFans has grown into one of the biggest media businesses hiding in plain sight. The company has 85 million users, upward of 1 million creators, and will generate more than $2 billion in sales this year, of which it keeps about 20%. That puts the site on track for $400 million in annual net sales — dwarfing Patreon, a platform devoted to helping creative types monetize their work, which is valued at more than $1.2 billion. “OnlyFans is revolutionizing creator and fan relations,” Stokely said.

What OnlyFans customers crave, said Stokely, is a level of interaction and intimacy with the creator that they don’t typically get on Instagram or Twitter, where celebrities tend to share the most manicured version of themselves. But to keep gaining more mainstream appeal, the company will likely have to shake off its reputation as a den of online debauchery and assuage safety concerns about the site.

Stokely founded OnlyFans after creating a series of lesser-known online businesses. In January 2011, he created GlamWorship, a site specializing in a sexual fetish known as “financial domination,” in which a submissive client offers up gifts or money to a dominant partner. Over time, GlamWorship customers increasingly gave suggestions on what they’d like to see from the site’s several hundred models, many of whom started to accept custom video requests through Twitter.

Stokely soon realized he could combine the two ideas: creating a site where fans could request videos and pornographers could satisfy their admirers’ specific fetishes.

That led to Custom4U, a service on which customers could order tailor-made videos. Though anyone could create or order a video, adult models and porn stars selling customized content were the most avid users, Stokely said at the time. In 2014, Stokely promoted the site during an appearance at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, the industry’s largest trade show.

“Basically, Joe Blokes would pay, say, $100 for his own personal movie, where the star is saying his name and doing what he wants,” Stokely told HuffPost. “The model can name her own price … She logs in and could say, ‘I want to receive $100 for a five-minute video and $200 for a 10-minute clip,’ or even more if it’s a fetish clip.”

The next company he founded, 121with, was a marketplace where tradespeople — such as plumbers or real estate agents — could sell their expertise via an audio or video call. Custom4U and 121with, Stokely said, allowed him “to gain a much better understanding of how creator-fan relationships worked.”

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