Each month, we put the spotlight on a founder in the Mercury community to learn about their story and the company they’ve built. This month we sat down with Jijo Sunny, co-founder and CEO of Buy Me a Coffee.
You might see the first dollar ever earned by a small business pinned up on the wall, commemorating the moment their dream became a reality. For content creators online, many of those moments happened on Buy Me a Coffee, when a fan sent them a few dollars in thanks.
Buy Me a Coffee is a delightful, no-fuss way to support creators and makers online, while simultaneously giving their fans the power to show appreciation for the content they want to see more of. With one-time payments (or coffees), fans have a simple and commitment-free way to say, “Wow, I loved that — keep it up!” Creators can also serve up exclusive content to their fanbase via memberships, and even sell content through a storefront. With over 1M creators carving out their community on its platform today, Buy Me a Coffee’s impact is so much more meaningful than a like or follow alone. To find out what inspired Jijo to brew up the idea, read the full Q&A below.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: What’s Buy Me a Coffee’s elevator pitch?
Buy Me a Coffee helps people make money from their creative work in the cutest, simplest way possible.
Q: You started Buy Me a Coffee to create a less transactional way for creators to get paid. As a creator yourself, what was the experience like trying to monetize your content before Buy Me a Coffee existed?
It was mostly ads. I tried literally every other ad network out there. There are some names you wouldn't even recognize, like AdBrite and Infolinks. But it was mostly limited to advertising revenue. In fact, my first attempt at startups was an ad network called AdIndigo back in 2010, intended as an AdSense alternative for bloggers. I was just 15 years old at the time, and unfortunately, we had to shut it down after only 6 months.
Q: What kind of content were you creating at the time?
Funnily enough, I wrote a lot about my journey as a blogger. How to come up with topics to write about, how to create a blog, and how to monetize it. So pretty much about my journey. That was my main thing.
Q: With advertisers previously being the primary source of revenue for creators, what is the impact of Buy Me a Coffee, with fans being able to support their fave creators?
I'd say control. Control over their audience, their income, and — more than the money itself — how it makes you feel as a creator to have people not just like your best work, but also support you with their money. That's more meaningful than just liking it on social media. And as a creator, what more can you ask for than someone showing their appreciation that way?
Q: Did you see a gap in apps supporting the creator economy — was that a factor in launching Buy Me a Coffee?
Before Buy Me a Coffee, we were working on this product called Publisher, which was basically this paywall product for media companies like The New York Times — the Buy Me a Coffee element was just one small part of it. But it was the part that resonated with people and we decided to make it a standalone product.
You can't really market research your way into building for creators. You just have to put it out there and see their response. To us, many features actually look really good on paper. However, when we launched them, it did not resonate well with creators. There’s a lot of nuance there. So I wouldn't trust my instincts or market research. I would just put it out there and see how it goes.
Q: You recently hit over one million creators on the platform. At what point would you say you got a sense that you’d achieved PMF?
I would say during Covid, when people needed it the most. That was a time when we grew like 10x out of the blue, around March 2020. And it wasn't something that we did — it was purely market conditions, but I think that's when we really knew we hit product-market fit.
Similarly, when the Ukraine war broke out, a lot of people wanted to help activists, causes, and journalists, so they used Buy Me a Coffee as a cash-based way to [supplement] their income. That had a huge impact on our total volume as well.
Q: Wow! Were there other ways that people started using Buy Me a Coffee that you hadn’t anticipated?
Oh yeah, a ton. So if you look at the creators of Buy Me a Coffee, they are very different. I can't really profile them as podcasters or YouTubers, because they could be like a woodworker selling a PDF of how to build something. It doesn't belong on a Shopify store; it certainly doesn't belong on Amazon or even YouTube. It's content that is created for paid members because they like it and because they belong to a community. So Buy Me a Coffee’s applications are very unique.
Q: Buy Me a Coffee is for creators, not businesses. Why was it important for you to characterize these payments as support or donations versus transactions?
That's a good question. Most transactions on Buy Me a Coffee come from a place of support. In most cases, the fan already got value from the creator, even before they transacted on Buy Me a Coffee — as opposed to in a business where you have strong expectations of getting something in return. I would say Buy Me a Coffee wouldn't even work if it was purely transactional. Instead, we wanted to make it feel like the supporters are part of the creative journey. I think that had a huge impact. So it's very different.
Q: How has Buy Me a Coffee transformed the creator experience? Does it make it possible for more of them to earn a living?
Buy Me a Coffee is the primary source of income for a lot of creators that I know. Think about someone from, let's say, the Philippines, or India, or Brazil — $100 means a lot to them compared to someone from the U.S., right? It's a meaningful amount of money for them — it changes their lives.
So I don't think that's the most interesting metric. When you see these reports saying that so few people in the creator economy make a living wage and all of that, I think they're missing the point. Even if Buy Me a Coffee helps creators spend an extra hour or two on their creative work, that's a win in my book.
Q: You’ve built out Buy Me a Coffee to be more than a digital tip jar. It now offers a subscription-style monthly membership and Extras, a marketplace for creators to sell content. What inspired these evolutions — and what’s next?
We don't really think of Buy Me a Coffee as a tipping platform really, although it’s what drives most of the volume. If you think about it from a first principles perspective: what do creators actually want and how can we help them make money in a more meaningful way? Membership is obviously one of the ways to do it. Letting them sell stuff is a great way to do it. For example, membership is our fastest-growing product because it helps creators make recurring revenue more reliably than donations or one-time sales. So there's that, and our shop is the easiest way to sell online — we made it as simple as possible.
Q: In what ways is Buy Me a Coffee unique from competitors?
Buy Me a Coffee is like a Swiss Army Knife where you can accept one-time donations, open a shop, and offer a membership. You can't do all of that on other platforms, so it combines all the functionality of a Patreon and a Gumroad — and even email marketing platforms like MailChimp because we have most of the features of an email marketing tool — for free. It's like stitching together a bunch of tools.
The thing I like most about Buy Me a Coffee is that it has a low floor, which means you can simply start using it in five minutes, and a high ceiling, so you can go deep and start a membership, set up a shop, and offer membership rewards. It's very easy to get started and then go from there.
Q: Do you think the gig economy will only grow from here? Is Buy Me a Coffee a kind of bet on the future of work in that way?
Nobody really knows what the future of work will look like, but people like flexibility, and people like creating things and, if possible, monetizing what they create. Even for something like Uber, with reports about exploiting drivers, when I ask drivers what they think about their job, they are genuinely happy that they have this option and the flexibility to do it whenever they want. So I think the gig economy is here to stay, and so is the creative economy.
Q: What’s the one thing you want people to remember about Buy Me a Coffee?
As a creator, you’ll remember how that first coffee made you feel. I’ve read a lot about it. It’s meaningful, even for folks who are very successful, when they receive that first notification of support. It just hits different. That's the thing that I’d want you to take with you.
Q: What was the first tip or dollar you ever received?
It was back in 2017, we had just launched Buy Me a Coffee, and I received a notification that I received a coffee. It turned out to be Joseph testing to see if the app was actually working.
Q: YouTube, IG, TikTok, or something else?
Q: Who’s a creator you wish more people knew about?
There are dozens — I can’t pick favorites!
Q: Pay-what-you-want pricing or a set price tag?
Q: What’s your go-to coffee order?
Large latte with no sugar.
Q: Who’s your biggest fan?
It’s got to be Joseph and Aleesha, my co-founders slash partners in crime.
Q: What’s one thing about Mercury that makes your life easier?
User experience. Mercury has nailed both the UI and the customer support, which is a rare thing to say about a