Tesla Buys $1.5 Billion In Bitcoin
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Tesla Buys $1.5 Billion In Bitcoin

Cryptocurrency’s price soars after electric-vehicle maker says it soon expects to accept customer payments in bitcoin.

By CAITLIN OSTROFF
Tue, Feb 9, 2021 12:39amGrey Clock 4 min

Tesla Inc. said Monday that it bought $1.5 billion in bitcoin, a disclosure that follows Chief Executive Elon Musk’s promotion of the cryptocurrency and other digital-currency alternatives on Twitter.

The electric-vehicle company also said it expects to start accepting bitcoin as payment for its products soon. Bitcoin prices jumped more than 10% after the announcement, according to cryptocurrency research and news site CoinDesk.

Tesla disclosed its bitcoin purchase in its latest annual report, saying the move aims to “diversify and maximize returns on our cash that is not required to maintain adequate operating liquidity.” Tesla said a board committee had approved changes to company rules on investments, adding that it can also invest cash in gold bullion and gold exchange-traded funds among other assets.

The bitcoin purchase, likely among the largest by a public company, comes after a rally in 2020 when the price more than quadrupled. Tesla is joining a handful of other companies that have disclosed bitcoin holdings. Software developer MicroStrategy Inc. acquired about $425 million worth of bitcoin last summer, and its CEO, Michael Saylor, has become an outspoken proponent.

Companies holding bitcoin in their treasuries face an accounting risk: Because bitcoin and other digital assets are considered “indefinite-lived intangible assets,” rather than currencies, any decrease in their value below what the company paid for them—even a temporary one—can force a company to write down the value, taking an impairment charge. MicroStrategy posted a net loss in the third quarter of 2020 because the price of bitcoin dropped temporarily in September.

Tesla said it would analyze its holdings in the cryptocurrency each quarter to see whether impairments are warranted based on bitcoin prices. “If we hold digital assets and their values decrease relative to our purchase prices, our financial condition may be harmed,” the company said.

Sharp changes in the digital currency’s valuation might be why companies have acquired millions, rather than billions, of dollars’ worth of the cryptocurrency, said Michel Rauchs, founder of Luxembourg-based digital-assets consulting firm Paradigma Sarl: “It is definitely greater risk but greater reward there.”

Bitcoin recently traded Monday at $43,602.68, according to CoinDesk. Its price averaged $34,730.12 in January and is currently more than eight times higher than bitcoin’s 2020 low of a little under $5,000.

Mr. Musk has shown growing interest in bitcoin in recent years, after tweeting in 2018 that the only cryptocurrency he owned was one-quarter of a bitcoin a friend had given him—which today would be worth more than $10,000. Around Jan. 29 the Tesla chief changed his Twitter biography to “#bitcoin,” which sent prices for it higher, before removing that reference.

“I think bitcoin is really on the verge of getting broad acceptance by sort of the conventional finance people,” he said last week on the social-networking app Clubhouse. Mr. Musk said he needed to be cautious with his public statements about cryptocurrencies because “some of these things can really move the market.”

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment. The company said in its report that it updated its investment policy in January but didn’t disclose the exact timing of either its board decision or its bitcoin purchase.

“He’s already telegraphed it to the market,” said Meltem Demirors, chief strategy officer at London-based asset management firm CoinShares, referring to Mr. Musk’s mentioning bitcoin in his Twitter biography. “One of the world’s largest corporations doing this—I think it opens the floodgates.”

Recently, Mr. Musk’s tweets about dogecoin, a cryptocurrency started as a joke in 2013, have helped drive up that virtual currency’s price.

Tesla has struggled to maintain cash while ramping up vehicle production, but its shares soared some 480% in the year ended Friday as investors piled into electric-vehicle makers and the company reported a string of quarterly profits. Tesla took advantage of that surge by selling billions of dollars in new stock, shoring up its cash position. The company’s cash holdings totalled around $19.4 billion at the end of last year, up from around $6.3 billion at the end of 2019.

Mr. Musk’s tweets have drawn regulatory scrutiny, including from the Securities and Exchange Commission over a 2018 post in which the CEO said he had secured funding to take Tesla private. Mr. Musk and the SEC later settled in a deal requiring the company to sign off on any written statements he made that could be deemed material. He has since mocked the regulator on Twitter.

The SEC is unlikely to challenge Mr. Musk over his bitcoin tweets, said John Coffee Jr., a Columbia University law professor who specializes in securities law, especially after a federal judge rebuked the commission when it sought to hold the CEO in contempt in 2019. Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether Mr. Musk had sought approval for his bitcoin commentary.

Mr. Musk’s online remarks can move markets. After touting online shopping site Etsy Inc. in January, the stock rose more than 8% on the open. Shares in CD Projekt SA, the maker of the troubled Cyberpunk 2077 game, rose more than 15% after Mr. Musk praised the game. Both stocks retreated later. Last year, Mr. Musk tweeted that he thought Tesla’s share price was too high. The market agreed, and the stock fell before recovering.

An affinity for bitcoin seems a natural fit for Mr. Musk, who has bristled at government constraints. Last year he battled local authorities in California that ordered his lone U.S. car plant closed as part of broader measures to curb the pandemic. Mr. Musk reopened the facility after several weeks, daring authorities to arrest him. They didn’t.

Part of bitcoin’s appeal for some holders is that it isn’t circulated or controlled by a government or nation. Unlike opening up a bank account to store dollars, euros or yen, starting a bitcoin account doesn’t require providing identifying information. Bitcoin is effectively anonymous, and law enforcement can’t freeze a bitcoin account as they could a bank account.

Payments company Square Inc., which shares bitcoin advocate Jack Dorsey as its CEO with Twitter Inc., acquired about $50 million worth for its corporate treasury in October. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. acquired $100 million worth in December to hold in its general investment account.

Companies might have grown more optimistic about bitcoin after the March 2020 selloff, when it recovered faster than the broader stock market, said Joel Kruger, a currency strategist at LMAX Group.

The added wrinkle with Tesla is the plan to accept bitcoin from customers. Few companies now accept bitcoin directly as payment; Overstock.com Inc. is among the few that do. Some large companies experimented with bitcoin payments in 2014 and 2015, like Dell Technologies Inc. and Expedia Group Inc., but most later dropped it for lack of use.

While Tesla’s move would be high profile, a more substantial development is expected later this year, when PayPal Holdings Inc. plans to allow its customers to use their bitcoin holdings for payments.

Mr. Musk’s ties to the financial-services industry date to the 1990s, when he invested most of the $22 million he earned from the sale of an internet business into a new startup, X.com, that became PayPal. EBay Inc. bought PayPal for $1.4 billion in 2002.

As the largest shareholder, a 31-year-old Mr. Musk collected more than $100 million. He used the money to start Tesla and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the rocket company he also runs, as well as solar-cell company SolarCity, now part of Tesla.



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Platforms are paying less for popular posts, brands are pickier about partnerships and a possible TikTok ban looms

By SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN
Wed, Jun 19, 2024 9 min

Many people dream of becoming social-media stars like YouTube’s MrBeast or TikTok’s Charli D’Amelio . But for most who pursue careers as content creators, just making ends meet is a lofty goal.

Clint Brantley has been a full-time creator for three years, posting videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch where he comments on news and trends related to the online game “Fortnite.” Despite having more than 400,000 followers, and posts that average 100,000 views, his income last year was less than the median annual pay for full-time U.S. workers in 2023—$58,084, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Clint Brantley, a full-time creator, draws an average of 100,000 views for his ‘Fortnite’-related videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The 29-year-old is hesitant to commit to an apartment lease because the money he gets, mainly from online tips and sponsorship deals, arrives randomly and could vanish at any moment. For now, he’s living with his mom in Washington state.

“I’m vulnerable,” he says.

Earning a decent, reliable income as a social-media creator is a slog—and it’s getting harder. Platforms are doling out less money for popular posts and brands are being pickier about what they want out of sponsorship deals. The real possibility of TikTok potentially shutting down in 2025 is adding to creators’ anxiety over whether they can afford to stick with the job for the long haul.

Few overnight sensations

Hundreds of millions of people around the globe regularly post videos and photos to entertain or educate social-media users. About 50 million earn money from it, according to a 2023 report from Goldman Sachs . The investment bank expects the number of creator-earners to grow at an annual rate of 10% to 20% through 2028, crowding the field even further. The Labor Department doesn’t track wages for these creators, also known as influencers.

It can take months or years to earn money as a creator, often through a combination of direct revenue from social-media platforms, sponsorship deals, merchandise sales and affiliate links. But those who stick with it eventually see some returns, surveys show. Creators say that’s because you can learn what kind of posts most resonate with an audience, which can lead to more followers and, in turn, more moneymaking opportunities.

But money doesn’t mean big bucks . Last year, 48% of creator-earners made $15,000 or less, according to NeoReach, an influencer marketing agency. Only 13% made more than $100,000.

The gap reflects multiple factors, including whether creators work full- or part-time, the kind of content they put out and when they started. People who jumped into the space during the height of Covid-19 lockdowns—and who focused on a niche such as fashion, investing or lifestyle hacks—say they benefited from the surge in social-media use during that time.

A small number of creators shot to fame, propelling the occupation to the top of career wish lists for many teens (and adults). But behind the scenes, creators say the job is gruelling. They need to constantly produce compelling posts or risk losing momentum. They spend their days planning, filming and editing posts while also working to make inroads with advertisers and interacting with fans.

“It is a lot more work than most people realise,” says Emarketer analyst Jasmine Enberg. “Creators who make a living doing it have been at it for many years. Most are not overnight sensations.”

Like other self-employed professionals, creators don’t get paid time off, healthcare benefits, retirement contributions and other perks that companies typically provide for their workers. That reality, coupled with stubbornly high inflation and mortgage rates , is making it more difficult to get by as a creator.

Brantley works on editing a coming video. The online tips and sponsorship deals that make up his income can be erratic, so for now the 29-year-old continues to live with his mom in Spokane, Wash. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Everything is more expensive, especially groceries,” says Jason Cooper of Mobile, Ala.

A few years ago, Cooper dreamed up a sassy sock puppet named Sock Cop, who cracks dad jokes in live and recorded videos for TikTok and Twitch. He currently makes $500 to $600 a month, almost entirely from tips.

He thinks he could probably haul in a lot more if he went full-time. But with no guarantee, the 37-year-old father doesn’t want to quit his marketing job and risk losing health coverage. He now spends a few hours in the evening and on weekends on Sock Cop. If he had more time, he would feel the need to constantly make videos.

“You’ve got to feed the beast,” says Cooper.

Shrinking platform payouts

TikTok’s $1 billion creator fund, which ran from 2020 to 2023, doled out money to eligible creators for posting to the platform. Others joined in. YouTube’s TikTok competitor, Shorts, allowed creators to earn anywhere from $100 to $10,000 a month with its temporary fund. Instagram’s Reels Play bonus program rewarded creators with fluctuating payouts. Snapchat ’s Spotlight rewards program gave $1 million a day to the platform’s top creators.

Today, the platforms have revamped or completely changed how they pay creators—doing away with their funds.

Qualifications for TikTok’s current rewards program include having an account with at least 10,000 followers with a minimum of 100,000 views in the past month. Instagram is currently testing a seasonal, invitation-only program that rewards creators for sharing Reels and photos.

YouTube debuted an ad-revenue share model last year, in which qualifying creators with more than 1,000 subscribers and 10 million public Shorts views in the past 90 days receive 45% of revenue from ads that occur between posts. Snapchat has a program that gives creators who meet certain criteria, such as having at least 50,000 followers and 25 million monthly views, a portion of the ad revenue that appears between Stories. Its Spotlight program also continues to dole out money to creators.

Creators who opt into these programs or bonuses aren’t guaranteed a significant payday.

Yuval Ben-Hayun originally became popular on TikTok in 2020 because of his posts about the word-puzzle game Wordle. The 29-year-old New Yorker eventually expanded into linguistic and other education content, and by early 2023, was able to support himself and his bills of over $4,000 a month.

TikTok had closed its fund by then but was testing its creator rewards program. Ben-Hayun said in March he received about $200 to $400 per million views, and it’s steadily declined since then—even as his follower count reached 2.9 million.

The followers are still there, but the money isn’t. He recently hit a new low, receiving only $120 for a video with 10 million views.

Danisha Carter uses her phone and a ring light to create content for her TikTok channel, where she has 1.8 million followers. PHOTO: JESSICA PONS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

Danisha Carter is frustrated that TikTok and other platforms sold the idea of content creation as a job, but later withdrew the financial incentives. Thanks to creators’ efforts, she says, consumers are now hooked on social feeds, bringing the platforms billions of dollars in annual revenue.

The 26-year-old has 1.8 million TikTok followers, and her posts about beauty and exercise, along with opinions on topics ranging from dating to online bullying, regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views. TikTok has paid her a total of $12,000, Carter says. She sells merchandise for additional income, bringing in about $5,000 last year.

“Creators should be paid a fair percentage based on what the apps are making off creators,” says Carter. “There should be more transparency into how we’re paid, and it should be consistent.”

A TikTok spokeswoman declined to comment.

YouTube said it paid more than $70 billion to creators, artists and media companies in the past three years, and more than 25% of channels in the ad-revenue share model are now making money through it. “We remain committed to putting our full energy into what matters most for our creators, viewers and advertisers,” a spokeswoman said.

A future without TikTok?

Many creators and advertisers credit TikTok, which pioneered the short-form video genre, with driving stronger engagement than its industry peers. TikTok has gained more than 170 million users in the U.S. since its launch in 2016—including, Pew Research Center says, a third of American adults. They spend an average of 78 minutes a day on the app, according to market-intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

TikTok may not be available in the U.S. for much longer, at least not in its current form. In April, President Biden signed a bill into law that will force a sale or ban of the app by Jan. 19, 2025. U.S. lawmakers have expressed worries that TikTok poses a national security risk. TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, has said it can’t and won’t sell its U.S. operations by the deadline.

ByteDance sued the U.S. government, alleging the new law violates its First Amendment rights. Several U.S. creators also sued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear arguments in September for both cases.

“To lose TikTok would be kind of devastating,” says Brandon Granberg , a 31-year-old creator from Bayville, N.J., known for interacting with strangers in public places in silly ways.

Granberg struggled for years to attract viewers on the app before one viral post two years ago took his follower count from 5,000 to more than one million. Recently he made $1,000 from a TikTok program that launched last year called TikTok Creative Challenge, which allows creators ​to earn money by making video ads for brands that don’t appear on their personal profiles. He also earned $2,800 for producing four TikTok videos promoting a website for people with foot fetishes. Granberg says he found it creepy, but did it because he needed the money.

While he hasn’t landed many other sponsored posts, he’s grown his income significantly by making marketing videos for small businesses over the past year. Most clients find Granberg on TikTok. “If it gets banned, it will definitely hurt me,” he says.

Changing tastes and algorithms

This year, U.S. social-media creators as a whole are expected to make $13.7 billion, according to Emarketer. The research firm projects the majority of that—$8.14 billion, or 59%—will come from brand sponsorships.

Advertisers have always led in compensating creators, paying out far more money than the social-media platforms and fans who buy merchandise or dole out tips. But these days, advertisers expect more from creators than just large followings, according to agency and talent representatives. They want to see evidence of strong engagement in the form of saved and shared posts, plus the demographics of creators’ audiences.

“Brands are looking at metrics that are far less predictable for creators and also very difficult to price yourself on,” says Sarah Peretz, a business-strategy consultant in Los Angeles who helps creators negotiate partnerships and deals with advertisers.

Some brands are more controlling than in the past, says Sarah Steele , a 34-year-old creator in Tulsa, Okla., who started making TikTok videos about being a working mom in 2020. “Now it’s, ‘We’re paying you and this is what we want you to say.’ ”

Earlier this year, Steele says an advertiser insisted she cite legal disclaimers in a series of sponsored Instagram posts. “It felt like I was reading off a teleprompter,” she says. “As a consumer it even turned me off to the brand a little bit.”

Creators, meanwhile, are having a tougher time attracting viewers, thanks to algorithm changes and other factors beyond their control. And while more advertisers are looking to partner with creators than in the past, “increased activity leads to increased competition,” says Peretz.

Another change is that advertisers now prefer to work with just a handful of creators on long-lasting deals rather than experiment with several on one-off projects, says Jess Hunichen, of Shine Talent Group.

Hunichen co-founded the talent-management agency in 2015, when TikTok didn’t exist and influencer marketing was still relatively new. Back then, an average deal size between an influencer and brand was usually below $1,000. Now, the average deal per campaign is around $10,000, she says.

Worth the hustle

Ronit Halmos of Los Angeles began making TikTok videos earlier this year that she describes as quick-reviews of restaurants, bars and more “with some sass and attitude.”

The 27-year-old, a full-time technology recruiter, recently landed her first advertiser deal. A kombucha brand asked her to make a 30-second post featuring her take on a line of flavors. Though it ended up getting less attention from viewers than her usual fare, she made $1,500 from about 30 minutes of work.

Tyler Haven , a 27-year-old traveling around the Pacific Northwest, charges $250 to $300 to make promotional videos that brands can post to their own social channels, and around $1,200 for posts that appear on either his Instagram account with more than 41,000 followers or his TikTok account with more than 10,000 followers.

Since January, he’s been posting videos documenting his “van-life” with his wife, Oak Haven: Their primary residence is a fully paid, fully decked-out 2004 Mercedes Sprinter T1N.

Haven said it’s been easy to grow his following organically. He believes it’s because his posts don’t depict some unattainable, picture-perfect life.

He quit his job in June to pursue full-time content creation.

“Even if I were to make $2,000 a month, which is absolutely nothing—that’s less than most people’s rent—I could live on that,” Haven says.

With the van fully paid off, the 27-year-old says he and his wife, Oak Haven, can get by with even a small income from his videos. PHOTO: TODD MEIER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL