The first Line sticker Sasaki Sakiji ever designed was for the woman who would become his wife. Stickers, which are more like cartoons than emojis, are a defining part of the user experience on Line, which is the most popular messaging service in Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand. Often framed by manga-styled exclamations and usually featuring cute animals or eccentric caricatures, they’re used to replace text or express emotions.
In 2014, Sasaki was living in Japan, working in retail sales and sketching as a hobby. Sasaki had read that Line was launching its Creators Market, a platform where users could buy and sell their own stickers, and decided to make his own called Yumemi, a caricature of his wife. Once the marketplace opened, there was a wave of interest, as people bought his stickers.
“It wasn’t until the sales started that I knew that selling to the world would mean big business,” he told Rest of World.
He soon developed another character, a sentient pink blob named Marutomo. Many of Sasaki’s sticker sets document Marutomo’s shenanigans: Marutomo dancing at the disco. Marutomo on the mic at a press conference. Marutomo visiting a psychic. Marutomo getting caught in the washing machine, again. Marutomo and Yumemi are now the subject of their own illustrated manga book, and Sasaki sells branded merchandise, including tote bags, smartphone cases, and bibs for toddlers.
Sasaki never broke into the top echelon of sticker creators on the marketplace, some of whom have made upward of $10 million on the platform. Instead, Sasaki’s sales peaked at 500,000 yen a year ($5,000 USD). He says that’s just a fraction of what many of his creator friends have earned, but alongside the other revenue he’d developed using his sticker characters, it was enough to justify quitting his day job and dedicating himself to his art. Sasaki is now a full-time manga artist and corporate illustrator. He credits getting in at the ground floor of the Line Creators Market with taking him out of retail obscurity. As Sasaki puts it, “I was able to live as an illustrator because of the Creator Market in Japan.”
Stickers make Line a lot of money. Stickers cost users between $0.99 and $4.99 and come in a pack of up to 40. After Apple or Google deduct a 30% fee from any sticker sold on the Creators Market — depending on whether Line was downloaded via iOS or the Google Play store — the remaining 70% of revenue is split 50/50 between Line and the creator.
In 2020, direct sticker sales accounted for more than $200 million of Line’s revenue, according to the company’s earnings report. And that doesn’t include other revenue streams tied to the sticker business. There are now 4 million designers on the platform, from hobbyists and part-timers to professional studios. The top 10 creators have earned an average of 1.18 billion yen each in total sales, or roughly $10.2 million, throughout their careers, according to Line’s own figures. But, sticker creators told Rest of World that the marketplace has become increasingly saturated, making it hard for newcomers to break through.
“It feels like popular characters are fixed in the current Creators Market,” Sasaki said. ”Nowadays, new characters are still born every day, but it’s the sets of already popular serialized characters that dominate the rankings.”
Line launched in Japan in 2011 as a straightforward messaging app. Within the year, the company had rolled out its own illustrated sticker sets. The characters from this sticker set have since developed a global fandom. Line Friends, the merchandising wing of the company’s sticker business, took in about $70 million in revenue in 2020, has a flagship store in New York’s Times Square, and has signed a partnership deal with K-pop royalty BTS. But the sticker economy really took off in 2014, when Line allowed users to design and sell their own. This creative freedom gave life to new eccentric characters. Stickers had started as conversational shorthand; soon they became a curated expression of personality, with some Line users collecting libraries of their favorite stickers to send to friends, family, and coworkers.
Creators who found early success became evangelists for the sticker economy, and a whole ecosystem developed around would-be sticker millionaires looking to enter the market. Sasaki was one creator in the 29-member Stamp Creators Lab, or StaLab, a hype house of sorts for the first generation of popular creators. The collective launched in 2015 to promote each other’s work, boost their respective sales, and swap analysis of trends in the sticker market.
In 2017, StaLab published a book for everyday users on how to break into the sticker economy. Today, it’s easy to find similar how-to guides to getting started as a Line creator in Japanese bookstores, according to Marc Steinberg, the director of The Platform Lab, at Concordia University in Canada, who has researched the growth of Line’s super-app platform.
Steinberg said that the sticker economy is boosted by a (perhaps naïve) rhetoric that it’s a fast track to wealth outside the bounds of traditional work. “There’s often this promise of becoming rich and famous via Line production,” he said. “Sticker makers write: ‘Look, this is a gateway to entrepreneurship. Don’t imagine that your destiny is getting a full-time corporate job. You can be rich and successful.’”
Kosuke Nashida entered the creator marketplace after the first rush of creators. Unlike Sasaki, he already had a steady career in place as a practicing radiology physician in the city of Fukuoka. Nashida currently has over 500 stickers for sale on the market. “I was attracted by the ease with which anyone could use my designs on Line,” he said.
His main character is a doodled bird named Otori-kun. Nashida’s frenetic gifs depict Otori-kun shaking maracas, eating potato chips, and running away from a stick figure labeled “reality.” After several years trying to build his profile, Nashida says his sales have plateaued at about 100,000 yen ($865) per year.
“I feel that it is hard to form a community,” he said, commenting on how the Creators Market has limited discovery features to surface new talent. “I would like to have a better place for people to get to know my stickers, but I think it will be difficult.”
Like many creator economies, earnings on Line’s marketplace are heavily stratified. Only a select few break away to build large followings, making six-figure incomes from revenue sharing and sponsorship deals. When it comes to direct sticker sales, 154 creators have currently pocketed over 100 million yen ($865,000), according to Line. “These become the sort of idealized stories that are told about content creators and Line sticker producers that attract more people to produce these stickers for them, even if it’s not necessarily viable,” Steinberg said.
Line has occasionally hyped the narrative of breakthrough creators to recruit new illustrators, most recently in its international markets. In December, the company’s TV production arm in Thailand premiered the reality show The Next Creators, in which six illustrators compete through design challenges, developing signature characters and working on sponsored-content projects for international brands like Converse and KFC. The logline for the show says Line hopes it will “inspire people in Thailand to join the road to being a successful creator.” (Line TV, the company’s streaming service in Thailand, closed at the end of 2021 citing intense pressure from competitors, but The Next Creators continues to air on broadcast).
Line told Rest of World that supporting new creators and helping users discover talent is one of the business’s biggest challenges. “There have been lots of stars or top-notch creators, but they are fixed. Only a certain number can make large amounts of money in the economy,” Naotomo Watanabe, an executive in charge of Line’s sticker business, told Rest of World. Wantanabe said the company has launched a series of creator support programs and other initiatives in the past few years to grow the top- and middle-tier of creators and attempt to expand the creator economy as a whole.
In Taiwan and Japan, Line runs programs to try to boost the profiles of successful creators and rookie talent. Local teams spotlight the highest-earning and most popular new creator every month, and both titles come with small cash prizes. A similar sticker competition has since launched in Thailand.
Junko Noji, who sells designs under the username Mofusand — a riff on the Japanese phrase mofu mofu, meaning “soft and fluffy” — is an up-and-coming Japanese creator. After studying the most popular stickers on Line, she began selling her own in 2017. Cats sell, she found, so she designed stickers of cats with fried shrimp hats, cats wearing shark costumes, and cats eating Japanese curry. She now makes more than 1 million yen ($8,796) a year from sales, a number she says is increasing each year.
Noji is one of the 2021 grantees in the Line Creators Support Program. Now in its second class, the program selects a handful of emerging creators, sending them 300,000 yen each month in aid, as well as offering them brand coaching with LINE staffers. In September 2021, Noji earned the monthly Top Creator MVP award, with her sticker set of a Shiba Inu and a tabby cat who are best friends.
“When Line users sent my stickers, more people became familiar with the characters, and they became even more popular,” said Noji in an email to Rest of World. She has used the exposure from Line to spin off a merchandising business and now is represented by a content management agency for illustrated characters called Spiral Cute.
Meanwhile, Nashida is still waiting on his big break. “It’s my dream to become a popular creator, but I feel it is difficult,” he told Rest of World. Nashida has recently experimented with transitioning away from stickers and into NFTs (nonfungible tokens). The much-hyped digital art trend grabbed headlines last year for making artists millionaires in a matter of hours.
In November, Nashida uploaded 30 of his Otori-kun designs to OpenSea, a decentralized marketplace that has become one of the most popular platforms for buying and selling NFTs. He hasn’t made a sale yet, but he is hopeful.