“I don’t want to go to college anymore; I want to be a YouTube star.” When Nikita Kopotun’s younger brother, Denis, shared his dream of becoming a full-time Roblox streamer at 17, he wanted to help. Having just completed an internship at Cisco in China, the Queen’s University engineering student used the connections he’d made with Shanghai factories to manufacture stuffed animals Denis could sell to fans and help his brother turn a profit. Five years later, Denis has 9 million YouTube followers and banks seven-figures a year, while Kopotun has got a business: Juniper, an ecommerce company that partners with influencers to manufacture merchandise to promote their brands.
“We believe influencers represent the next era of commerce,” says Kopotun, who made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2021. “Brands can’t just be built off t-shirts and hoodies so we want to sell flexible supply chain infrastructure to these creators.”
Chief Revenue Officer Kopotun, 26, and his cofounders—CEO Joel Wegner, Chief Culture Officer Will Cartar and CTO Ryan Wong—launched Toronto-based Juniper in 2016. Today, the bootstrapped brand’s 50 employees work with 60 influencers, including ZHC who has over 19 million YouTube subscribers. Juniper finds their most profitable clients publish long-form YouTube videos that earn them at least $500,000 a year. The company partners with them to create custom products and takes a cut of sales. Juniper generated $31 million in revenue in 2020, up 345% from $9 million in 2019, as consumers increasingly shopped, and sought out entertainment, online due to the pandemic.
While the company is headquartered in Canada, its manufacturers are based in China, where a team of 30 mass produce merchandise—from Denis’ tie-wearing cat plushy Sir Meows A Lot, to InquisitorMaster’s floppy-eared furry onesies, to Lanky Box’s cartoon-printed bedding bundle—and within a month of influencers inking a deal. Retail giants like Mattel rarely collaborate with influencers—and when they do, it’s typically with celebrities like Britney Spears—while DIY platforms like Custom Ink and Teespring don’t offer the same level of customization. Selling custom merchandise offers influencers another way of monetizing their fanbases. This has enabled many of Juniper’s clients to double or triple their revenues each year.
For influencers, Juniper’s products can serve as a launchpad. This past year, Denis’ Sir Meows A Lot became the protagonist of a YouTube cartoon series with nearly 1 million subscribers. “The designs and branding that Juniper did changed the way my channel looked,” he says. “It’s so easy to make any product by just slapping a logo on it, but to make products that characters very specific to that creator’s audience is so much more valuable.”
Unlike his influencer clients, who grew up on the internet, Kopotun spent most of his childhood in studios training to be an elite ballet dancer. He was sidelined at 17 with tendonitis in his knee, but believes his training has set him up for success as a founder. “I learned a lot about personal rigor and work ethics which has transitioned really well into business,” he says.
That tenacity has earned him clients like Jack Douglas, an influencer whose YouTube video series, Yesterday I Asked You, has garnered 92 million views. He partnered with Juniper after the company cold emailed him a plan to create a board game based on his show. “All I’ve wanted to do for years now is to take YIAY and diversity into games,” says Douglas. “Having YIAY exist as a board game wouldn’t have happened without Juniper.” In addition to the board game, scheduled to be released this spring, the two have also produced a plushy version of Douglas’ toy American Eskimo, Klondike.
Despite the growth Kopotun has seen this past year, he isn’t resting on his laurels. His goal is to transform Juniper into a tech platform that enables influencers to set up stores and sell custom products without the help of customer support representatives. He hopes that this platform—as well as a refined manufacturing process to produce more orders and of different sizes, allowing Juniper to serve smaller influencers—will be ready to launch in early 2022. “What we really want to be doing is supporting all sorts of brands and extending ourselves to the bottom 99% of creators,” says Kopotun. “We believe that we’ll be able to hit unicorn status in the coming years by building this out.”
By Alexandra Sternlicht, Forbes Staff