This Startup Offers Models a Way to Get Discovered Besides Instagram

App Helps Models Get Booked

There is a new tool for all professional and aspiring models. In fact, one year after the app launched, over 5,000 models are now using this tool, Agent Inc., for faster, smarter & safer bookings.

There’s a lot of questions about the modeling world.

For one, there is a lot more at stake in terms of safety. Your work is your body – quite literally and sometimes you don’t know the photographer or the destination or have a say on all the clothes or scenes you’ll be doing. In the wake of Allyssa Milano’s Me Too Campaign, where women and men shared posts if they were sexually assaulted or harassed, it’s easy to see the prevalence of the disconcerting matter. In the fashion and modeling world, it is nice to see that one of the key factors in creating this model booking app was the safety of the models and photographers involved.

But beyond safety, there’s also professionalism – on both sides. If you want a model, where do you go? How do you know if they are going to show up on time and is there a trusted way to get them? As a freelance writer and someone who hired freelance writers, trust is one of the hardest parts of working on the freelance level. There are modeling agencies, much like there are for marketing agencies. But for freelancing – I guess you find an Instagram model? And being someone who shadowed PR firms and had to look up bloggers and social media influencers, it isn’t exactly streamlined or search friendly.

Another factor is payment. Even established brands like Vogue, which set the standards for fashion, don’t pay a living wage to models. There are two accounts that Vogue pays models $250 for a session and another one that says Vogue pays fashion models $300 per day. 

There’s a new approach to finding a model and booking a session.

Windy City Cosmo interviewed Mark Willingham, the former President of Operations for high-fashion brand Carmen Steffens who is revolutionizing the modeling industry with his new venture, Agent Inc. He’s already been interviewed by Bloomberg and other media outlets.

We discuss his business idea, how he runs his startup, and also delve into the modeling industry and how social media is changing the landscape and how his app is helping to unify a $1.2 billion dollar fragmented industry.

Windy City Cosmo: How did you get your business idea?

Willingham: My two business partners, Dustin Diaz and Ashley St. Clair, came up with the idea when Dustin was awarded a book deal on photography and lighting. He was trying to hire 20 models to shoot for the book and, not knowing where to find them, he ultimately ended up reaching out to models on Instagram (this is how to be scouted on Instagram, btw) and Model Mayhem. Well, his experience was less-than-desirable with more than half of the booked models not showing up. Of those models that did, there was a range of issues from not being experienced to not being able to accept payment by credit card. One model even asked if she could give him marijuana as change for a $100 bill!

All of this got Dustin thinking that if he had such a bad experience trying to book models for one job, there must be a much bigger overall problem in the industry. It turns out he was right. He and Ashley did some research and discovered a fragmented $1.2B industry that is highly inefficient, has little to no transparency, and little to no safeguards against predators. Agent Inc. was conceptualized as an answer to these problems. Agent provides companies with the tools to quickly find and book the perfect model for every job while empowering models to take control of their modeling careers, increasing their billings in an environment that is safer and completely transparent.

Our goal at Agent is not to replace traditional agencies, but to re-imagine the entire industry where all the players–models and the companies that hire models and agencies themselves–benefit from the efficiencies and safeguards that are core to the Agent platform.

Marketing a Startup: Market Research and The Target Market for Your App:

Windy City Cosmo: How long did it take you to go from idea to business?

Willingham: It all happened lightning quick…we went from concept to a business – with commitments from investors–in less than 2 weeks! In all fairness, in addition to the idea, Dustin’s technology pedigree was a real help in moving things forward so quickly. He was one of the early-on employees at Twitter and had stints at both Google and Yahoo. In addition, Dustin started with Uber founder, Garrett Camp.

Windy City Cosmo: Can you tell me more about the state of modeling with the Instagram and blogging age? Does your app help bloggers and Instagram models find photographers or is it just for agencies?

Willingham: Instagram, blogging and social media overall have had a real impact on the modeling industry. Some good and some bad. The good part is that models can now promote themselves without the need for traditional agency representation. The bad part is that, without safeguards, models who independently use social media to book jobs are exposing themselves to a wide range of dangers including criminals and sex offenders. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the unchecked Internet. At Agent, we have created a safer booking environment for models where they are also assured of getting paid as soon as a job is complete.

The Agent platform currently focuses on connecting models with companies and photographers that hire models, but this is just a matter of near-term focus. We will shortly be introducing additional talent account types including photographers, stylists, makeup artists, social influencers and more.

Windy City Cosmo: It seems that this app is for catalog talent – do you anticipate high-end fashion using this or for events like New York Fashion Week coming up?

Willingham: The Agent platform currently covers all types of modeling categories including commercial, runway, fit, promotional, event, etc. That being said, our main focus today is not on the super high-end market segment (i.e., super models, etc.) that is addressed by the major national modeling agencies. Our focus is on the long-tail of the US industry which represents $1 billion in annual bookings. The long-tail is approximately 80% of the overall US market share.

Windy City Cosmo: What were some of the steps that you took to create your business? Did you survey people? Did you seek out investors? Did you start solo?

Willingham: Dustin, Ashley and I all bring unique strengths and experience to the business. Dustin is an amazing tech guy who also has a deeply creative soul, Ashley is super talented when it comes to UX design and I bring 11 years of experience in high-end fashion and a background in growing companies and brands. Together, we have been able to bring out the best in each other and build a platform that we believe is truly going to change the modeling industry on a worldwide basis.

Throughout this journey, we have continuously reached out to companies and models for feedback. It is imperative that we fully understand their personal industry experiences so that we can provide ongoing, real value on all fronts.

We were very fortunate that a team of investors believed in our vision from the very beginning. Today, we have a deep and diverse investment and advisory team behind us that includes major modeling and talent industry influencers. Their belief and investment in us is a fantastic vote of confidence that we are indeed positioned to change the way that companies book models.

Windy City Cosmo: How do you market to models and stylists and photographers to be on your platform?

Willingham: We started off by doing a small amount of social media advertising and then things just took off. In addition to online advertising, both word-of-mouth and media coverage have contributed to us having more than 5,000 registered models on the Agent platform. Today, we are the fastest growing modeling platform in the world.

Windy City Cosmo: I understand that you launched in LA then will move to NY and Miami. Will you be moving to Chicago next?

Willingham: We started off focusing on four markets: LA, NY, Miami and Las Vegas.

We currently have offices in both Los Angeles and NYC because having a physical location on both coasts positions us to not only support our initial focus cities, but also all the major cities in between. Chicago is definitely a key city for us–with requests already being received from companies who want to book models there–so we expect Chicago to be our next major area of expansion. I anticipate that this will occur within the next 4-6 months.

Windy City Cosmo: Can you tell me more about your business and the services you offer?

Willingham: Agent is a technology-driven platform, which is the result of our focus to completely re-imagine the modeling industry.

The modeling industry, at its core, has pretty much remained the same for the past 70 years with modeling agencies representing models (often on an exclusive basis) and connecting them with companies that want to book models. The traditional modeling agencies take a commission of up to 20% from both the model and the company. Also, the process of booking a model can be quite time-consuming as the companies need to search through an agency’s book of models, either online or in-print, identify which models are of interest to them and then communicate this to the agency–via phone or email–who then need to determine the model’s availability for the proposed job. Depending on the complexity of the job and a variety of other factors, this process can take from a few hours to a week or more. Then, there are issues of safety (if the person hiring the model has a criminal/sex offender background), payment (if it will take weeks or even months for the model to be paid), lack of transparency (how much the modeling agency is actually getting paid by the client) and career control (exclusivity agreements between models and agencies tie the model’s hands, preventing them from controlling their own destiny).

Now, with the Agent platform, things are much different . . . and much better. Agent offers companies more diversity and overall options than a traditional modeling agency. Agent provides real value to both sides of the marketplace, empowering companies to efficiently find and book highly-vetted models in minutes by utilizing powerful, granular search filters. The Agent platform is free to use and a small fee of 5% is only charged to companies once they have completed the job and electronically paid the model. Furthermore, for companies which book models, Agent provides a guarantee of 100% satisfaction and offers 24/7 customer support. This type of guarantee or support is unheard of in the industry.

For models, the Agent platform is focused on empowering them, providing the tools and guidance to control and grow their careers. We have created a much safer work environment for models by running a criminal/sex offender background check on every person who wants to use the platform to book them. In addition, the models set their own rates on the platform and they are electronically paid immediately (direct deposit in to their bank accounts) when the job is completed. Further, Agent is non-exclusive, free for models to apply and be listed and only charges a 10% booking fee when they are paid for a job (as opposed to the 20% fee charged by traditional agencies).

In addition, the Agent provides total transparency, giving both the power to rate each other at the completion of each job.

Running a Successful Startup:

Windy City Cosmo: What’s the hardest part of running the business?

Willingham: The most challenging part of the business for us is our relentless pursuit to provide a solution that seamlessly covers all booking scenarios. Our goal is to ensure that every client has a better overall experience than if they had worked with a traditional modeling agency. A key part of this deliverable is the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analysis to match models with jobs.

Windy City Cosmo: How do you distinguish yourself among competitors?

Willingham: At this time, our competitors are truly the traditional modeling agencies as they are where the majority of the business currently gets booked. However, it is important to note that the top 4 modeling agencies only account for less than 20% of the annual industry revenues and the remaining 80% of revenues (almost $1 billion!) are booked by 6,500 smaller agencies with each of them averaging only 2 employees. The industry is super fragmented. We differentiate from the traditional agencies and other emerging technology-focused agencies in that our goal at Agent is not to replace existing agencies, but rather to make the overall industry both stronger and bigger. Models benefit from Agent in that we empower them with control over their careers, we provide a safer environment from which to book jobs, we charge much lower booking fees and we provide education tools and guidance on how to continuously make more money. Clients benefit from Agent’s super-efficient booking process, greatly reduced booking fees, 100% guarantee and 24/7 live customer service.  And, traditional agencies in the long-tail will benefit from us when we make our software available to them for licensing.

Windy City Cosmo: Do you use any apps to manage the business? If so, what are your favorites?

Willingham: Yes, we do! We leverage Stripe as our trusted technology partner for processing and managing payments on our platform. Stripe is used by thousands of businesses worldwide including Lyft. Also, we use Intercom as our main Agent in-app communication and customer service tool. And, my favorite? Well, it’s Slack for sure. We heavily depend on Slack for continuous communication between all Agent team members. It’s super-efficient, always there and always on.

Windy City Cosmo: What, do you find, is the hardest part of starting a business?

Willingham: Keeping a super-targeted focus is always a challenge when starting and growing a new business. It is so easy to broaden the scope of what you are doing based on “a great new idea” or “a natural extension that makes perfect sense.” The reality is that if you don’t stay focused there is a good chance that you will never gain enough traction to win. And, we like to win. Initially, we had included more talent types in our offering, but scaled them back to focus solely on models. We will broaden our offering as we grow but for now it is focus, focus, focus on models and the companies that book them.

Windy City Cosmo: How do you network as an entrepreneur? Do you use LinkedIn? Do you send emails? Do you go to events? 

Willingham: Networking has been an essential part of our company’s forward momentum and we use all tools available including LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Instagram, attending technology and modeling industry related events and good old-fashioned meet-ups at local coffee shops. Actually, during our first year of business and prior to having an ever-growing in-house team, I believe that Ashley, Dustin and I spent more time meeting with people at coffee houses around Los Angeles (where we started) than most people spend in coffee houses during an entire lifetime!

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