An Interview with MUSES App Founder Shirley Yang

Jasmine Lee
Jasmine Lee  |  April 26, 2017

Have you ever looked at an Instagram post and taken note of whichever restaurant, clothing company or beauty brand has been tagged in it? Did you then go eat that dish, track down that outfit or keep an eye out for the beauty product?

If you have, you’ve contributed to the overall goal of an influencer marketing campaign: increased awareness. Influencer marketing software is a fascinating disruption of traditional marketing campaigns and endeavors, but the industry is becoming more and more saturated, making it difficult for newcomers to significantly impact and influence.

To understand more about the influencer industry, check out a recent article outlining everything you need to know about Influencer Marketing

In December 2016, Shirley Yang founded MUSES App, a mobile application that connects influencers and businesses of all sizes to partner up to grow digital audiences. She was one of the five female startup founders who presented at March’s Women Tech Founders + Technori Startup Showcase.

MUSES appeared at Technori to tease its app launch. Muses currently has Angel funding—funding that is given to a startup from friends, family and angel investors—which goes towards building the product, readying it for release and content marketing efforts.

MUSES has a blog as well, which works to both showcase the rising stars of the influencer community and educate small to mid-size businesses on the importance of working with influencers and social media. However, MUSES is all about the app.[/cs_text][cs_text]

The Path to MUSES App

Yang specifically built MUSES as an app because she thought of the on-the-go, constantly networking end user. To her, “mobile and social go hand in hand. At least 80 percent of social media is conducted on mobile.” And because millennials and Gen Z-ers are the main demographic for social media influencers, she wanted MUSES’ community of influencers to congregate on that plane.

MUSES allows Yang to combine her background in engineering with her passion for influencer marketing. She studied engineering at University of Southern California and worked in tech and big media before stepping into the head of social strategy role for multi-channel network StyleHaul. It was at StyleHaul where Yang bridged all sides to the process of influencer marketing.

“I worked with 6,800 girls in 85 countries to help them with branding content, pitching them to the L’oreals and Maybellines of the world,” she explained. “I lived and breathed it, and that’s when I decided to build my personal Instagram brand to understand how it worked. So I see all sides of this process: What does it feel as an influencer? As a brand? As the middleman?”

"You can't keep your influencers secret. It's hard to make them exclusive to you. I wanted to change that model and make influencers open-source."

Taking cues from her all-hands-on-deck experiences, Yang has purposefully made the operations of MUSES App lean and mean. Yang is currently concentrating on building and sustaining a hardworking core lead team. As of now, there are five full-time employees in Chicago and three developers based in New York. Yang’s engineering background allows her to be her own product manager.

“I can write my own requirements, I can do my own mock-ups,” she said. And, as an added bonus, it equips her with the coding language that helps her communicate with her developers.

Yang’s biggest motivation to create MUSES was her belief that the current players in the influencer marketing space were only scratching the surface of potential. Her ultimate goal is for MUSES to “propel and move us forward in this industry.”

The app caters to anyone and anybody who wants to build an audience, but MUSES does focus on cultivating and working with local small to mid-size businesses because they’re the ones who need the most help.

Those are the businesses who don’t have a huge marketing budget and have employees too busy running their companies to worry about creating social content, inadvertently missing out on the huge digital sector.

This is where Yang is most passionate. When asked what specific parts of the influencer marketing industry needed disruption, she thought for a bit before carefully explaining.

“I think that there are two things. One: it’s so binary and I feel that the quality is dwindling. You see the same girl holding a product or the same waist trainer that everyone’s using. It’s become stale and it feels very transactional. That’s a pity because you can do so much more than that.”

How? By making influencers open-source.


“Agencies are still important, especially if you’re executing large-scale campaigns,” Yang said.

However, there’s an inherent problem with businesses and agencies working with the small pool of recognized influencers.

“You can’t keep your influencers secret,” she continued. “It’s hard to make them exclusive to you. I wanted to change that model and make influencers open-source.”

Ultimately, MUSES can, in turn, empower those open-source influencers to pitch brands themselves. According to Yang, “How do you call up a big brand and say 'work with me?' A lot of girls produce amazing content but at that same brand , the decisionmakers don’t know you. They only know those 10 to 20 [influencers] that they work with all the time. There’s so much more to harvest.”

The Importance of "Cohorts"

Interestingly, in creating MUSES App, Yang realized, “No matter how the industry changes, one thing stays the same. No matter how big you are, there’s always room for growth. Whether you have 500 followers or 5 million, you always want more. MUSES App is built on top of that. It enables people to partner up and grow together.”

As an example, Yang described her own experience in partnering up and unexpectedly growing her network and personal brand. Yang and Carli Bybel, “one of the biggest beauty influencers,” attended a BCBG event during New York Fashion Week together.

Bybel posted a selfie she took with Yang and overnight, Yang’s following doubled. Yang mused, “This happened a few times: going out with influencers and they would tag me, and I would grow like crazy. That made me think: ‘Friends who grow together, stay together.’ That’s how you really grow your audience, partnering up. You double your audience size like that because you cross-promote each other.”

Accordingly, MUSES ‘cohorts’ feature is a fascinating and unique element of the app. At the Startup Showcase, Yang declared that, at MUSES, “We believe in the power of cohorts. There are preset groups within the app that you can join, which encourage individuals to partner up with other individuals and brands with brands.”

As an example, Yang turns to the popular “squad” photos that are everywhere on Instagram. “If you just post about yourself, it’s boring. You know those squad photos you see?

That’s better. You’re seeing variety. It’s not just you but also who you hang out with, what circles you’re in. That’s affiliation by association. That’s the concept for MUSES and that’s the goal—for people to work together, to collaborate, because that’s actually working smarter.[/cs_text][cs_text style="padding-bottom:15px;"]

Avoiding the "Ghost Town Effect"

That same idea applies to the steps that Yang is intentionally taking to grow the impact, reach and scope of MUSES App. Strategic partnerships are incredibly important to Yang, both to get the app off the ground with a running start and when looking forward to its global growth.

Yang has outfitted MUSES with an array of basic e-commerce tools — Hootsuite for social media suites, Squarespace for the website builder, MailChimp for email marketing software — but she admitted that, right now, she’s focused on “building the product and doing a really fun beta group launch.”

The beta group launch is Yang’s determination to avoid the “ghost town” effect. The worst thing that can happen is if a brand-new user opens up the app and has no idea what to do because there’s no activity within the app. Yang is leveraging her connections for the beta launch.

She explained: “I’m going to get at least a few thousand influencers that I know are amazing, my influencer friends and the small businesses and some large brands that have already signed up for the beta list to join the app, and we're going to help them create groups and give them one-on-one attention through our community management team.”

Yang wants quality activity happening in the app before the company publicly drives marketing dollars to growing it.

For Yang, laser focus is absolutely key to the success of any sized business. She admitted that, “There’s so much that a founder would want to do. You can get so excited about different ideas, and you talk to different people and they can sway you here and there."

"I’ve had people talk to me about MUSES being a content house and producing amazing content in-house ourselves. And I was, like, ‘Yeah! We could do this and that.’ But then I said, ‘Wait. We’re a tech platform. We can do that later.’ So stick to your original goals. Sure, you can adjust as you go, but make sure to always gut check. Especially if you don’t have unlimited finances. You want to make sure you want to spend it on the things that will give you the most return.”

Yang is full of pep talks, which is helpful to her off-hours role as marketing chair at Women Tech Founders, a non-profit movement that supports and highlights the efforts of women in the tech world. “I think having strong female supporters around you is very important,” she said.

“I think it’s really great to support one another, knowing that we’re all going through this together, and spreading the message and helping other women be strong. I think that’s so important.”

That’s one of the lessons Yang has learned. She’s realized that “the road to success is more of a philosophical thing.” She’s discovered sheer perseverance and significant female relationships are lifesavers within the tech industry.

“Not to sound stereotypical, but I did go through a lot of challenges being the only minority in technology. Not race but, more, being a woman,” Yang explained. “I’ve been in companies where they don’t give you the benefit of the doubt and you just have to work twice as hard to prove them otherwise. When you have the opportunity to prove yourself, that fuels my urge to be that much better. You’ve got to stay true to yourself.”

Jasmine Lee

Jasmine Lee

Jasmine is a Senior Research Specialist at G2 Crowd. She used to own the e-commerce and team collaboration spaces, but now she avidly researches as much as she can about the rapidly evolving and head-spinningly varied vertical industry spaces. She's passionate and hyperbolic about most things, but especially regarding the things that have anything to do with pop culture, fandom, gifs, and the wining and dining scene of Chicago.