OnlyFans’ CFO on unconventional career paths and the creator economy 

Lee Taylor discusses the obstacles he has faced as chief financial officer of a site best known for its explicit content

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It was the desire to hold “an influential position at an interesting company” that led Lee Taylor to accept a job as chief financial officer at OnlyFans back in 2019. 

‘An interesting company’ is certainly an apt description of the social media platform. Launched in 2016, the site allows anyone over the age of 18 to post content – pictures and videos – and charge viewers for access. Although the site hosts content from creators such as musicians, artists, chefs and athletes, it is best known as a leading platform for adult entertainment. For those with enough paying fans, it can be a lucrative business. 

But paid social media was far less popular in the days before the pandemic. Taylor had never heard of OnlyFans before interviewing for the CFO role, but he was “immediately brought in by the founder’s vision”.

He recalls that everyone at the time wanted to be an online influencer, making money by advertising products and wearing brands. OnlyFans offered something different: a way for creators to monetise their own content by charging a subscription fee to ‘fans’ of their work, he explains. “Creators upload their own material and keep 80% of the revenue. That’s an extremely lucrative model for both the creators and the platform.” 

Despite the controversy surrounding its niche in adult entertainment (or perhaps fuelled by it), OnlyFans’ user base and revenue has exploded. The site has 220 million registered users and more than 3 million content creators as of May 2023. And, since its launch, the company has paid out more than $15bn (£11.8bn) to those posting on the platform.

Throwing out the playbook

Taylor’s path to the C-suite was unconventional. He ditched university at age 17 to pursue an accountancy apprenticeship. “My preference has always been to learn by doing,” he says. This early practical experience provided the opportunity to “learn by osmosis” and exposed him to how the finance function actually works within a business.

It also helped to shape his approach as his career progressed. “I’m always trying to view finance through all the different lenses within an organisation,” he adds.

Unsurprisingly, Taylor rejects the idea that one needs a university degree to enter the C-suite. 

Indeed, an aversion to following the herd was in part what prompted him to leave his safe and predictable senior finance role at a listed company and accept an executive position at OnlyFans. 

Transitioning into a senior leadership position was not without challenges. Taylor was immediately faced with the sobering reality that he would now be designing a playbook, rather than simply following one. “When you take the top job, you suddenly lose the ability to learn from those above you,” he says. “I had to learn how to make big decisions without that safety net.”

Taylor believes that his ability to build relationships across the business – a skill he developed during his apprenticeship years – is what helped him to adapt to his new responsibilities. He says: “Finance is often viewed as a service function, but I’ve always held the view that it can add tremendous value to the business. But that requires building strong relationships with all parts of the organisation, finding out what is needed and how finance can contribute to that.”

Starting from scratch

OnlyFans had no standalone finance function before Taylor’s arrival, meaning he had to build an entire system and team from scratch.

While others might have baulked at such an undertaking, Taylor relished the challenge. He explains: “After years of frustration spent at jobs where there was neither the budget nor desire to scrap everything and start again, I finally had the opportunity to do just that. It was just me and a couple of Excel spreadsheets, which was very appealing.” 

When you take the top job, you suddenly have to learn how to make big decisions without a safety net

It was difficult to forecast revenue in the early days of OnlyFans, so Taylor’s focus was on building systems that could scale with growth. “We approached it slowly and deliberately,” he says. “I didn’t want to throw a lot of resources at something with the idea that it could get big. I also didn’t want to pull people into a job only to go through a round of redundancies shortly after.”

And, this approach has paid off. What started out as “one man sat at a computer” has since grown into a finance function consisting of 20 people focusing on payments, tax and accountancy.

For Taylor, the next challenge is deciding how AI will be used in the finance team. Work within the function will change considerably as AI deployment ramps up, he says, with routine tasks such as bookkeeping likely to be replaced by AI altogether. “This means that CFOs are going to have to start looking at how to retrain existing teams,” he warns.

Safety first

On its website, OnlyFans claims to be building “the safest social media platform in the world”. This may raise a few eyebrows given the site’s loose content policy, but Taylor is adamant that the safety of its users is “central to our growth and everything we do as a business”. 

In May 2024, the UK regulator Ofcom launched an investigation into the site after a coding error led to a temporary relaxation of its age-verification process. Although the mistake was reported and quickly amended by OnlyFans, the regulator is considering whether the company’s policies sufficiently protect under-18s from viewing pornographic material. Ofcom is scheduled to provide an update on its investigation in August.

Despite this incident, Taylor stresses the rigour of OnlyFans’ safety controls. Those wishing to become content creators must undergo a stringent verification process that requires 10 pieces of identifying information, including physical address, social media accounts and a selfie with a government-issued ID. Furthermore, ‘fans’ must provide bank details before subscribing to any content creators, further limiting the ability of under-18s to access adult content. 

OnlyFans bosses have also been vocal supporters for the Online Safety Bill, a rare show of support among almost widespread criticism. 

Risque business

OnlyFans shocked the world in 2021 by introducing a ban on adult content. Founder and former CEO Tim Stokely explained that the change was in response to barriers to new capital, with many banks refusing to do business with the company because of perceived reputational risk.

But the policy was quickly abandoned thanks to backlash from adult performers who had helped to grow the site’s user base, as well as scepticism over whether the platform could remain profitable under the new guidelines. Nevertheless, this episode served as a reminder of the reluctance of many financial institutions to partner with controversial brands such as OnlyFans. 

As CFO, Taylor is well aware of these challenges and has sought to strengthen the site’s relationship with the banking community. “It has taken years of transparent conversations, addressing concerns that they have about our operations and providing evidence of the robust safety controls we have in place.

“Five years ago, we weren’t having these conversations,” he explains. “It has taken a lot of work, but we now have a vast network of extremely strong relationships with many banks and financial institutions.”

Creators using platforms like OnlyFans have also struggled to access vital financial services. There are instances of sex workers in the UK being debanked as a result of banks’ risk aversion. 

Taylor strongly believes that creators should be granted the same access to financial services as everyone else. “It is important to challenge traditional perceptions. Creators want to have a safe place to monetise, but they also want to receive their money in a secure and fast way.” 

The creator economy is predicted to double in size to $480bn (£378bn) by 2027, according to a report by Goldman Sachs. For Taylor, this is proof of the legitimacy of platforms such as OnlyFans. “What was once considered a ‘side hustle’ is now a genuine source of income for people,” he says.

And, Taylor adds, as the market for user-created content grows, OnlyFans will continue to serve that community in a way that is both safe and accessible – but only to those aged 18 and up, of course.