How to Make Money

How These Entrepreneurs Teamed Up With Teen Heartthrobs to Build a $20 Million Business

September 24, 2015
by Susan Shain
Contributor

Have you heard of Matthew Espinosa? How about Nash Grier?

If you’re a woman between the ages of 13 and 18, chances are your answer is a swoony “yes.”

Espinosa and Grier are part of a new cadre of social media stars, famous for their silly videos, boyish good looks and frequent selfies.  

They’re not the only ones getting rich off their digital stardom, though — so is Meridith Valiando Rojas.

But she is far from a teenage boy who acts goofy on camera. Rather, Valiando Rojas is the co-founder and CEO of DigiTour, a company that organizes international tours for these young stars and their sea of adoring fans.

And it all happened because she decided not to sleep in one morning. Interested in her story, we chatted with her about what she’s learned — and how other entrepreneurs can find and fund their own creative ideas.

The DigiTour Story

In 2009, at age 24, Valiando Rojas had a job many people dream of: working for a major music label. In one meeting, though, she had an aha moment she couldn’t ignore.

The president of the label suggested using two separate strategies to promote an artist: a social media campaign and a tour. That’s when the lightbulb came on for Valiando Rojas; she could combine the two platforms to create a “social media tour.”

She looked to YouTube, where, as she explains, “There was an entire community of creators who had developed really deep direct-to-fan relationships with millions of people. I loved the idea of entering this new space and providing an opportunity for these creators… to meet their fans IRL (in real life).”

Ideas began to percolate, and eight months later, she co-founded DigiTour with music producer Christopher Rojas, who is now her husband.

It wasn’t until two years later, however, that DigiTour had its big breakthrough at the Silicon Beach Women Founder’s Pitch event — an event she nearly missed.

“I almost didn’t make it because I was producing an event in NYC,” she says. “I learned my pitch on the plane (running on two hours sleep), landed and dashed to the hotel where it was held. After arriving almost an hour after my time slot, they let me pitch anyway and my PowerPoint didn’t work — but I poured my heart into why Digi matters.”

This opportunity led to her meeting her lead investors. “That event was my fairy dust,” she says. “Had I said ‘No, I’m going to sleep in,’ I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

The Business of Social Media Tours

So, what exactly is a “social media tour”? And how on earth does DigiTour make money from it? Though DigiTour declined to give a breakdown of their earnings, here’s the basic premise.

Valiando Rojas hand picks stars from YouTube, Vine, Instagram and Twitter, looking at “demo (it’s all about teens) and engagement,” she says. “We care about the talent who is driving conversation.”

She then brings these internet celebrities on international tours, where they showcase their talents — everything from comedy to singing and acting — to throngs of screaming teen girls.

DigiTour’s latest offering is the Creative Collab tour, which begins on Sept. 28, 2015, and will hit 23 cities stateside and three in the U.K.

General admission tickets cost $34 — but far more desirable are the VIP tickets, which clock in at $140 each. Why? They include an “exclusive pre-show meet & greet” (read: a brief hug and photo, often followed by tears) with the featured stars.

Clearly, for these girls, a feeling of personal connection foments their fandom — and for DigiTour, drives sales.

It’s far from just the tickets, though, that are bringing in the dough.

We have built a business with multiple revenue streams: general admission, VIP, merchandise, and brand partnerships,” explains Valiando Rojas. “Twenty-two percent of our revenue comes from selling Digi-branded merch and products, and our brand partnerships continue to grow year on year.”

DigiTour’s Path to Success

Like the young talents she promotes, Valiando Rojas worked hard for several years to get DigiTour off the ground.

When she first started in 2010, Valiando Rojas says, “It was early days and no one really knew yet the power of social media or the talent it was launching. For the first two years we were…  perhaps ahead of our time with the concept of a ‘YouTube Tour.’”

But she didn’t give up, and in 2013, she was at her first NYC festival when she had a moment she’ll never forget.

“[I was] walking through the crowd to get to the front gate and I could barely move. It was wall-to-wall teen girls… The sheer passion, excitement, and number of girls who showed up made me realize who our audience was. Once you discover your customer, you’re able to accelerate the growth of your business.”

And accelerate it has: DigiTour is predicted to sell 300,000 tickets and bring in $15 million to $20 million this year, according to Forbes.

Valiando Rojas attributes her success to six essential factors:

Tenacity

“We were told many times to quit. The idea didn’t work and we should just do something else. My co-founder and I never listened to the naysayers. We stayed focused and ultimately we became the leader in our field.”

Passion

“If you don’t believe what you’re doing matters or will have massive impact, it will become nearly impossible to get through the bad days of being an entrepreneur (which happen!).

“People always look to the founder(s) to set the tone and stay inspired. If you’re not inspired, how will the people around you be?”

Hard Work

It requires a 24/7 work schedule… My partner and I rubbed two sticks together for two years and finally sparked a flame. Many people don’t have the patience to stick with something, nor the conviction to see it through.”

Focus

“You are your own greatest competition. As soon as you’re distracted or making choices based on what someone else is doing, you’re getting off track.

“Many people in our field talk about doing what we do and many of them are still talking. Doing is the important part.”  

Courage

“If you are too careful, you’ll never yield a high reward. I believe risks are important as long as they’re educated. In business, you need to be bold.

Timing

“It’s the fairy dust that we all need. My philosophy is say YES — go to events, take meetings, increase the places you are and the people you meet and eventually you’ll find your fairy dust.”

Do You Have What It Takes?

Do you dream of launching a profitable business? For Valiando Rojas, it’s been a rewarding experience.

“Every dollar the company makes, every employee we hire, and every customer we acquire[; it] has been a thrill to see how the idea has evolved into something that’s bigger than me,” she says. “It touches so many people, supports 24 people and their families, and has expanded beyond what I initially imagined was possible.”

But keep in mind those ups are accompanied by downs.

To keep your head above water through the tough times, Valiando Rojas says, “You must be obsessed with your idea and willing to work harder than the next guy or girl…

“Don’t run out of cash, have contingency plans, and take responsibility when you make mistakes. If you show you have grace under fire and can get through tough days and tougher decisions, then more people will back you and follow you.”

As for the future of DigiTour, Valiando Rojas says she “couldn’t be more excited.”

“We have tripled our staff, doubled our inventory of events, and started to develop other extensions of the Digi brand to our fans,” she says. “Our relationships with our fans, their trust of Digi and sense of its community have enabled us to learn about what they want and then give it to them.”  

What do they want? To connect, in real life, with the boys they’ve grown to digitally adore for their shaggy good looks and goofy videos with chameleons. And Valiando Rojas? She’s more than happy to make it happen.

Your Turn: Does the success of this business surprise you? Had you heard of these stars before?

Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Connect with her on Twitter: @susan_shain.

by Susan Shain
Contributor for The Penny Hoarder

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