Aella: Sex Work, Building an Audience, and Monetizing a Community

Hey yenizens!

A handful of ya’ll asked me to do a (quick) breakdown of this amazing interview between Aella, one of the top creators on OnlyFans — a platform revolutionizing sex work — and Li Jin & Nathan Baschez.

So… here you go. 😄

To infinity & community,

— john

For starters, here’s some important high-level context:

Founded in 2016, OnlyFans is a platform that is revolutionizing sex work, allowing creators to sell subscriptions for premium content, as well as earn tips from their fans and charge for pay-per-view messages.

What’s neat is that although OnlyFans is more widely known for sexual content, it has a growing market for foodies (e.g. cooks, chefs), fitness enthusiasts (e.g. coaches, trainers), and a growing population of music and musicians. With > 30 million registered users and nearly 500k creators, the growth has accelerated due to the pandemic.

Aella’s story really begins here since she shares that pre-covid-19, she was an escort and in the sex business for ~8 years but that the pandemic forced her to think more creatively about how she can continue to earn an income.

She runs a private telegram group for OnlyFan girls and previously was a data analyst at a crypto startup.

The conversation heads into a number of different areas but here are some of the more interesting tidbits that I was able to glean from the interview:

  • Aella liked OnlyFans better than being on “livecam” because her strengths from a business perspective were more suited to marketing than “live, sexy performance”.
  • Aella lost her (Christian) faith around 19 after growing up in “extremely sheltered” environment where she wasn’t allowed to watch any adult programming. She shares how her father installed a device that would strip out sexual content from shows (she didn’t know that the main characters in the movie Titantic were romantically involved).
  • When she left the dogmatic religious context, she jumped into the secular world — since she didn’t have much experience, it forced her to be even more entrepreneurial and creative with how the world operates. She had to “learn how to be sexy” from scratch.
  • Aella grew up with a very public father who garnered a lot of negative attention for his views — she took this experience of “being hated” and it gave her even more courage to try sex work when she was on her own.
  • Platforms like OnlyFans allow a lot of more “secrecy” — or in Aella’s words, they allow a slower “reveal” of the person’s true identity which is important in online sex work. It’s not perfect, but, it’s one of the better platforms.
  • Managing the judgment, “backlash” and the taboo nature of sex work is hard, but, Aella’s seen a shift and normalization in this work in the last 10 years, but, it’s a lot more nuanced. For instance, Aella makes a clear distinction between seduction and penetration — the former being women flaunting / leveraging sexual power.
  • She shares that most women who are more publicly sexual are also monogamous and that there seems to be a strong relationship between a girl being in a relationship and their subscriber count.

Just because you’re amplifying your sexual power does not mean you’re distributing your sexuality.

  • There’s a growing (understanding) of the distinction between performance and actual promiscuity — an important differentiator that allows folks to earn income doing the former while not having to have multiple sexual partners for the same financial outcome.
  • Aella shares that there is a basic business model of free account and paid account on OnlyFans, and most folks use the free account as a “marketing channel” to funnel folks to the paid / gated access portions. There are many similarities between this and services like OnlyFans. 64% of girls earn the bulk of their income via subscriptions and the rest through paid DMs or tips. Aella shares that you can make a combination of these triggers / toggles for paid access thereby creating internal “FOMO” or “tiers” of access based on how quickly you purchase (e.g. First 10 subscribers get it for $10 while the next 10 get it for $20 and so on).
  • It’s clear that digital sex work is a lot of actual work (which might surprise some folks). She has to run a full business and, as she shares, she can’t “coast” for any meaningful amount of time as she’s constantly retooling and refilling her “top of funnel” prospects. There’s still very much a “eat what you kill” type of business mentality.
  • 50% churn rate is common, due to the “horny men” phenomenon / effect where men will subscribe one-time to unlock the entire historical feed, masturbate or fulfill their sexual needs, and then unsubscribe and never return to the site or re-up the subscription.
  • There is no “Discovery” system on OnlyFans which is either a crazy-missed opportunity or “by design” — Aella thinks it might be the latter, especially since OnlyFans charges a 20% fee which is astronomically-better than other competitors. Aella shares how she started with one service that took 85% of her income.
  • There is a definite premium on “intimacy” and Aella has experienced men who want it more and who are willing to pay more for this type of access. OnlyFans has also eliminated the “competition” aspect of more traditional services thus making “mass engagement” feel more intimate. For instance, a mass-distributed DM isn’t framed as a “spam DM”, instead, it’s interpreted as an intimate, one-on-one encounter. The elimination of “whale” clients who might account for 80-90% of a sex worker’s income historically has now been normalized by access.
  • This is also better for the sex worker! She can manage the amount of intimacy she wants with her customers and has more control. This democratization for the “every man” allows people who don’t have much money to spend on sex work feel engaged and connected.
  • Top-of-funnel for sex work has changed and social platforms are breaking under the influx of sex workers who need to market their services. Reddit has historically been one of the better places and, as Aella shares, the top posts in nsfw almost always have a OnlyFans-associated account. Distribution is a growing problem for this growing market.
  • Aella isn’t entirely sure if she’s worried about increased demand and/or competition. What she is clear on is that the girls who have the most success treat sex work like a real business: They post regularly, know how to be clear with their marketing, they know how to take good photos, and their customers “get what they pay for”. Competition isn’t an issue for folks who treat it seriously.
  • At the height of her subscriber count and channel, she was making > $100k+ per month in revenue.
  • The popular refrain is that “if you take off your clothes you’ll make money” but that’s not true in the slightest, according to Aella. You have to have a good brand, have a consistent, legitimate, and authentic brand and not everyone is good at that. And you have to be good at looking attractive — she got plastic surgery (a nose job) to increase her income as she considers her body “an investment”. This isn’t a surprise to those who are serious about their craft.
  • There’s an interesting relationship between income and a few different signals and strategies — Aella mentions 3, the first was posting on Reddit, having a higher subscriber base, and having a boyfriend.
  • Creators on OnlyFans will “swap” channels and pages, participate in collaborations, and effectively co-market each other in an effort to increase subscriber count and subscriptions. It has mixed results, according to Aella, but it is a “model” that is working for some.
  • Aella sidebars into sharing a product idea that essentially can help match creators on OnlyFans to one another for collaborations. The challenge is that you have to match on a number of unique criteria: Body type and shape, same pricing model, and the same amount of “explicitness”. This is, as Aella describes, a “fucking nightmare”. A marketplace for collabs!
  • Another business / project idea that Aella has is, again, in the search and discovery category, helping girls get more eyes and attention (top-of-funnel). Some folks have built blogs to help categorize and sort, but, these all far short of what is needed. A “good directory”, essentially.
  • Li Jin rightly mentions the amount of sophistication that is required to achieve a modicum of success on OnlyFans. Aella doubles-down on this sentiment when she shares that developing “story arcs” for her subscribers so that her community can join her in the story.
  • Where does all of this go for Aella? She wants to “retire” and take all the money she’s earned from sex work and spend time on passion projects, a book that she’s writing, and other ideas that she comes up with.

There was quite a bit of finer details, but, I’ve done my best to pull out the more insightful looks into Aella’s world and how it’s impacting the way we see business, the creator and passion economy, and how we earn and make a living in an increasingly-digital world.

None of this, by the way, would be even remotely “strange” if we were already in the metaverse, but, that’s an entirely different conversation!

Thanks to Li and Nathan for such an intriguing and fascinating guest!