Rising Media Star Morgan DeBaun Reveals the Secrets to Blavity’s Improbable Success

-Blavity started,
like you said, 2014. Blavity is a media company and
a platform for Black culture. We focus on Black millennials and
people who care about Black culture, which is probably a lot of
you guys here in this room. We also have a lot
of other brands. I think that’s one of the
things that surprises people. We acquired two
companies last year, one is Travel Noire, the
other one is Shadow and Act. We have lifestyle brands that
really cater to Black culture, and hinking about how do we
holistically provide a platform and different experiences for young
Black people in this country. That also includes conferences. We have AfroTech, which is a
conference in San Francisco, it’s actually next week. It’ll be between 3,000
and 4,000 people. Then we have a
women’s conference, Summit21, which is in Atlanta. -We were just talking backstage, and you were sharing with me the
moment when you realized what Blavity needed to become. When you left, you founded
it as a platform, you weren’t exactly sure what
shape that was going to take. Tell us when you realized what this
was and where you saw it going. -Yes, like you said,
media sucks, right? Starting a media company
in 2014 or now, I wouldn’t necessarily
advise it. The ad revenue is decreasing. There’s tons of challenges in terms
of building on top of other platforms like Facebook, changing
algorithms, and all that stuff. I did not want to start
a media company. I started my career in tech
and in Silicon Valley, and so I really believed
in creating platforms, creating applications, and things that
other people could build on top of. When we first started, it
was really designed around, “Okay, how do we create a space
online that people can come together and share their ideas
and their stories?” That was the original intention. Now, four years later, we’re much closer
there than we were when we started, because when we started, Black
Lives Matter was happening and Mike Brown happened. I’m from Saint Louis, but I was
in San Francisco at the time, sitting in my cubicle. I had beer pong and dogs and– -Just immersed in
the tech culture. -I was in it, and I did
not want to be there. I was, you know, I
looked like this. I was like, “This is
not going to work. This is not a place that I
can thrive and be myself. Also, the customers that I’m serving
are not a reflection of people that I care about.” At the same time, I was watching my
city, literally, be on fire and then trying to stay
connected with people on the ground. This was back before
Facebook had trending, they have trending, but
they took it off now, and before Twitter
had the algorithm. It was also really difficult
to find information. Even the information you found had
a lens of other media companies that weren’t a reflection
of our community, and we’re sensationalizing
a lot of things. The first thing that
we did was say, “Okay, who are the people on the ground
in Saint Louis that we can trust?” Again, this was even before DeRay
and the names that we know now. These were just people that were
making a choice to put their lives on the line to give information
and to fight this fight. We’re like, “Okay,
how can we, one, be a clearinghouse for truth
for our own community so that we can help support if
we’re not in these cities?” Whether it was
Baltimore, Cincinnati. There are so many cities that
were on fire back in the day. I mean, they are still now, but not necessarily a
part of the news cycle. That was the first step,
and then we said, “Okay, now we need to arm these people
with ways to share their story,” and so Blavity became a place
where we could take information and collect their
real-time data, their phone numbers, whatever
it is that they had, and then help disseminate that and
distribute that to other people who cared but needed a place
that they could trust. That’s how the brand started
to evolve into something that really spoke to trust
from a news perspective. To your question, that wasn’t
the original intention, it was not to be a
Black news company, and it’s something that we’ve
grown into in the last few years. -It sounds like that moment
of watching your city on fire and feeling like you didn’t have
a sense of what was going on in the ground really influenced the
way that Blavity has developed in terms of how you get
people to tell stories. It seems that’s also really influenced
the way that you break news even today, like there’s a lot of
user-generated content. Tell me about how that evolved? Blavity, about 50% of our
content is user-generated, so people can submit stories, ideas, videos through
our website, similar to actually how people
use Medium or even Reddit. We have editors on the
back-end who review, curate, and will reach out to people
to help them with their headlines, and we fact-check everything. We release those either as blogs
or as op-eds on the platform. It’s been interesting because sometimes
there are conflicting viewpoints, right? Black is not monolithic. I think that’s something that
is told in mainstream media, that all Black
people think this, “Today, the Black
people think this. Today, the Black
people think that.” That’s just not what it is. We disagree with
each other, right? There’s so much diversity
within blackness. Just like the world, our own
stories oftentimes conflict. It’s been interesting to watch
and to try to help our audience evolve in terms of not holding
Blavity Incorporated accountable for the viewpoints
of our demographic, and to try to create spaces where people
can have honest dialogue on things that they don’t agree about. -Right, and also understand the
nuance of what is a giant community and not one– -It seems like once you decided
you’re going in this media direction, it’s like your fighting two
uphill battles at that point. You’re serving an
audience and a community that is underserved by legacy
of media organizations. You’re also creating a media
company in this moment when it’s really
tough to do that, but you’re doing it from
a digital first place where you have a chance to look
at the mistakes of legacy media, both in the way that they were
not serving this community and in their revenue model. I’m wondering what
your priorities were as you set out to build
the thing that you built? What you left behind and what
you were eager to do more of? -Yes, when I first
started the company, I did not want to raise
venture funding. I think that was the
first moment of, “What are we trying to do here?” I bootstrapped the company for a year because I
wanted to make sure that what we were creating was
something that had value, that we weren’t artificially
inflating ourselves or building something that could sell
into this fake world of Silicon Valley. That was the first thing, is how do we create something that
has trust and that our audience is going to come
back to every day, weekly, or daily to get access
to information in this content? Once we felt like, “Okay, we have something that
people love,” then it became, “Okay, how do we scale in a way
that is authentic with interacting with our community on
a day-to-day basis?” That’s when we started to go into lifestyle
and build into health and wellness, travel, and entertainment, because not everybody wants
to hear about death all day, every day, you don’t want to. That’s not how we
live our lives, you turn on the TV, you watch
Trump, and you’re like, “Okay,” and you move on, right? You don’t want to
see it all day. Then you’re on
Instagram, you’re like, “Here’s a funny meme and
here’s a funny video,” and then you’re on Facebook, you’re like, “Here’s
this cute puppy.” -You’re trying to get the holistic
experience of delivering content. -Exactly. What we found over time was that there
was just such a hunger and a need. We felt like originally that we
could use and work with creators and help them deliver their
content onto our platform. We also found out that
there are stories that we need to be covering because
of the resources required. That’s ultimately why we
wound up raising funding was so that we could make sure that
we could cover the stories that were being untold in a
way that we were proud of and that our audience
could trust. -Tell me about some
of those stories. I’m curious from
your perspective, what is a great Blavity story, what are stories that you
look back on and you say, “That was really impactful, that was exactly the voice
that we were looking for, this is the story that we
needed to be telling,” what are some examples of that? -Yes, I’m going to give you two, I’m going to give you one
that’s user-generated, and then one that we just
did a few weeks ago. About three years ago
at Harvard Law School, a bunch of photos of Harvard
Black professors got defaced. How many of you guys
remember that story? Yes. It wound up hitting
mainstream media, but in the morning
of it happening, we got an email from one of the
students that was there and said, “This just happened, here are some photos, can you guys write about
this because we’re worried it’s not going to get covered?” We were like, “Yes, we should absolutely
write the story, but it would be stronger
coming from you, as a student there and
with your own colleagues, your friends, and people that you have
to go to school with every single day. These are your future
colleagues in America, you guys are going to be
leaders in our country, you all need to stand up.” -Step up and tell the
story in your own words. -Absolutely, right, which they were nervous about
because for obvious reasons, this is a track record online. They wrote the story and
provided us with the medium, we made sure that it looked
great on the website, and then we published it
under the woman’s name. She got a lot of press
coverage from that. -You broke that story, right?
-Yes, we broke the story. -That was the first place, that was the
first outlet that covered it, period. -Exactly. What’s interesting is we have
a lot of mainstream media that follows Blavity as a place, a source of original stories. I think that’s something
that I’m very proud of and something that our team tries to
continue to do across all of our brands, from Shadow and Act,
to Travel Noire to, of course, Blavity News. The second one was it two weeks ago when
the bombs were shipped to everybody’s– Not everybody, but significant
members of Congress. -People who have been
criticizing Donald Trump– -Yes, so we had Auntie Maxine
in the office that day to directly address
what happened, and to, one, tell people
not to be scared, and to not change their behavior because people are trying
to intimidate our community and intimidate those who are
standing up for lots of things. That was the second thing
that I’m really proud of because we were able to
provide a platform for people who are leaders within our community
to say what they want to say without it being spun anyway, and they can just go directly to
the audience that they care about. Of course, it gets picked up by
CNN and all these other things, and people have a
field day with it. We want to be a place where
people will come first and know that we’re going to do
the right thing with the content and their opinions. -When I look at Blavity’s user-generated
content in your social media, it’s clear that you’ve built
this really tight-knit community that there is a lot of
dialogue among the members, and trust is obviously
the coin of the realm. Without that, you
don’t have anything. As a media company
in 2019, obviously, you have to do advertising
integrations and sponsored content. That’s something
that is very tricky. I would say, I can’t really
point to examples of it being done really well anywhere. I’m curious when trust is
that important to your reader and authenticity
is that important, how you’re handling that? -It’s tough in the office. When we get RFPs and
brands come to us, and they say, “We want to advertise this
fried chicken thing,” and we’re like, “Tell us more about
how it works. First of all, why are
you coming to Blavity?” We actually get really
aggressive up front, like, “Why are you
coming to us?” If you guys have ever
seen RFPs from agencies, they’re very descriptive. They’re like, “We want African
American people who live in this, with this amount of income.” We get real-time information on how people
are trying to sell to our community. Then also, what they want
us than to help them do. It becomes actually a very
heated discussion internally amongst our sales team
who is doing their job, trying to make sure that we
hit our revenue targets. Our content team who very
much want to make sure that the content is a
reflection of our values and doesn’t ever come off as anything
that is inappropriate or not. Something that creates
value for our community. Those conversations
can often be tough. The guiding principle is, does this
great value for our community? If the answer is no,
then we let it go. Often times, we’ll say no, and the brands will be
relatively adamant, and they’ll say, “What do we need to
do to make this work because we really want
to work with you guys?” What we try to do is say, “Okay, how can we create value? Let’s stop with the
chicken nuggets. Let’s talk about our
entrepreneurship, let’s talk about job creation, let’s talk about financial
literacy,” if it’s a bank. “No, you cannot sell credit
card upsells on the website. Let’s talk about what is credit. Let’s teach people things.” Then if
someone naturally clicks to learn more, that’s fine. This is America,
that’s totally fine. We want to do it in a way that we
feel like we’re teaching people and that it’s responsible. -You have a sense of that. I’m sure you [?] when the brands
are coming to you as penance when they’ve been racially
insensitive in some way, and they’re pretty
direct about that, that this is why
they’re coming to you. -Yes, so we’ve had some people, and I won’t call out any brand. There’s people who they have bubblings
of things happening in their stores, and they’re like, “If this breaks,
we need a clear place to go from a communications
perspective, just say, ‘We’re working
with Blavity.'” Usually, in those cases, we seek to understand
and actually figure out why are you coming to us and
decline or accept accordingly. Secondly, if people
have already messed up, and they’re trending on Twitter and
Black Twitter has gone after them, it just comes back to value, what are you willing to do? Are you going to be like Starbuck
where you shut everything down, you change your policies
inside your stores, and you train people? -Instantly and without
the fake apology. -Right, and you have your
CEO and your founder, like, “Cool, I can
get behind that.” Are you going to be
like Waffle House? -Who are you going to be? I think that’s something
that we talk a lot about. -A lot of the Black media
mainstays especially the print and internet brands are
really in trouble. I’m curious, what lessons
you’ve learned from them, and how you’re looking
to avoid that fate? -Yes, they are in trouble. Most of them have been bought
and last three, four years. What have I learned from them? I have learned to
constantly question, are we creating stories that people
are engaging with at a high level? Let’s make sure we’re not
chasing celebrities. I think a lot of times people get
cut up in getting the biggest names from TV and Hollywood. For the Millennial and
the younger generation, they don’t really give a shit, they don’t really care if
you have a TV show or not. They care more about,
are you interesting, are you funny, do you
have something to say, are you speaking up for things, are you speaking up for
issues that they care about. As we continue to evolve, and
even our staff gets older– We hire 18 years. We have college students that
are in the office all the time. Just to make sure that our content is
in direct relation to what’s important to our community. The second thing is evolving
our business models. Instead of only
building a business that is reliant on these
10 to 20 big advertisers, your huge Fortune 500 companies, what are other companies
that we can work with that we’re going to be able to
grow with at an earlier stage? I might try to work with
a SoulCycle or an Away before I try to work with
a Marriott or Coca-cola. Because in 10 years from now, Away may be bigger than
American Airlines. I mean, it may not be but– -It seems like you guys
have done a good job from the get-go of getting
the event business, also conferences. Tell us a little bit
about your events. I think some people don’t realize
that that’s also part of Blavity. We make multi-millions on our
revenue from our events. Both in ticket sales and, of course, in sponsorships
and advertising. A lot of times when we
partner with companies, they want to go deep
with our audience. They want to go deep with
the Black community, and so we will work with them. We say, “Okay, why don’t
you come to AfroTech, and we will do a big
activation there. Let’s do four or five
articles on the site. Let’s also do–” We have newspapers, right? “We e-mail 400,000 to 500,000
people a day in our daily e-mails. Let’s then also run that content
through each one of our platforms and lifestyle brands, which don’t necessarily
overlap audiences.” That has differentiated us from a lot of other Black media companies
and media companies in general. Then the conferences
are really great because it provides an opportunity
for people to come together and have community. People feel lonely
in this country, in their offices, in their
cubicles, on their way to work. Having one time a year or two
times a year where you can go and see all your friends,
it’s like a homecoming, “What’s up?” Just we’re here,
at this weekend. That is something that I think
provides huge value outside of just that day to day
interaction on your phone. It’s been growing really fast. -I have one other
question for you, and then we’re going to open up
for questions from the audience, which will be at the two microphones that
they’re going to bring down here, I believe. You guys are doing a lot of
culture, politics, opinion, story, video, what area are
you looking to expand in? What’s next for Blavity? -Yes. I would say video which is interesting
because we didn’t do video when everyone else did. One, we couldn’t afford it, we didn’t have the money. Two, I wasn’t really
convinced that Snapchat and even like these
Facebook Watch shows were going to actually be something that
the consumer wanted to engage with. I knew that the platforms
with the algorithms were going to make sure that we saw
Facebook Watch and shows frequently. I don’t think that long-form
video content on Facebook, Instagram, and
Snapchat make sense. -Does not. I don’t think so. -It just doesn’t make any sense. They’re going push it
and keep pushing it. We didn’t do that which saved us a
lot of money and a lot of time. We didn’t have to
lay off any people. Now, with Instagram video
actually and just the feed, it’s going to continue to be something
how people interact with video content. We’re investing a lot on
short-form video content. A lot of it is fun, a lot
of it based on GIFs, memes, and some storytelling, but nothing over two
to three minutes. You will see a lot of that
from us in the future. -Awesome. I’m excited to watch it. We’re going to take some
questions from the audience. Do we have any around here? You can step up to
the mic right there. -Hi, Morgan. -Hi. -What are you doing
around intersectionality of like the Afro-Latina experience
and bridging with other communities? -Yes, great question. We are doing a lot of
things, one of the things, when we experiment at Blavity, is we often at times create sub-brands
that you guys don’t know are ours, and we test things without
having the spotlight on it. Afro-Latino’s community is something
that we think a lot about. We have probably around 10%
to 20% of our audience and even within our own company
who identifies as Afro-Latinas. You’ll see some stuff. Hopefully, it will bubble
to the surface next year. -Awesome, thank you.
-Great question. -I was wondering if you’d get into a
little more detail and nuts and bolts of, you’ve described running a media company
is very challenging in this environment. What are the things that
worked well driving revenue? What are some of the things you tried
that didn’t work for somebody who– and people in the
audience, who may be at the very beginning
stage of a newsletter or something else like that? -Great question. I’ll just walk you through exactly
how we started to make money. My first check was
an Instagram ad. Somebody was like, “Can
we run ads on Instagram?” I was like, “I don’t know how
much we charge for that.” It was $500 at the time, it was way back in the day. That was the first thing, was, “Okay, do we have one
scale on one platform for people to be willing
to pay for this?” That’s my first piece of feedback for
people who are running media companies. A lot of times people try to
grow scale across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram all these
things at once, do not do that. Get one thing big, sell that,
and then use that revenue and whatever profit you have to then go
and invest and scale other platforms. If you’re going to bootstrap it,
this is the bootstrap story. The second thing was, “Okay, we’re
kind of big for some indie brands to want to advertise with us. If we ever want to get to
these big Fortune 500, six-figure, seven-figure deals, I need a lot of scale
online to get there,” and that was going to
take us some time. I said, “Okay, what are people
comfortable giving 20k, 30k, 40k for? Events, they’re comfortable for a 300 or 400 person event
being a sponsor and a partner.” It’s something that people
already have an understanding of what their return
on investment is, they’re not questioning
impressions, it’s very like, “My logo was
on the stage, I’m happy.” Our first real chunk of money came
from running a woman’s conference which was called empowerHER which is the first
version of Summit21, our women’s conference. Then from there, it was really
actually the conferences and events wound up being
an amazing way to engage with our clients in a low-risk way
because they could put in 10k or 20k, and then they got to see the life
of our people, of our community. They got to see
everybody smiles, they got to see everyone really
spending time with their brands and interacting with
their products, and then they felt
comfortable saying, “Okay, let’s do a video series, let’s then go do an
article series.” A lot of our relationships
started at the events level, and those were only 200 to 300 people
events, it was very reasonable. Then from there
display advertising. We just started to do
programmatic and header bidding. We were doing mostly direct deals
which I would encourage because, it again, you have those one to one
relationships with brands and clients. If you’re building a niche
media company or a company that is focused on a
specific demographic, you need to be in direct
conversation with your clients because you want to help them understand
and you need to have a conversation. If you have an
agency intermediary then you’re not going to have
a loyal client necessarily. -Next question. –Thanks for coming. What would your advice be to
early content creators when– I like what you said where they
don’t have to be celebrities, about the story. Still, with my 14
subscribers in my channel, how do I approach
somebody to come on when the quantitative value
difference is so disparate? -It’s a great question. I typically recommend people start just
one or two weight classes above you. I recommend partnering with
other content creators first before you try to go after
brands and platforms. If you have a thousand YouTube
subscribers and you want to partner with your buddy who has
4,000 YouTube subscribers, you guys aren’t one to one. Maybe you need to post two times
or three times as frequently so that he can get the value or she can
get the value from that partnership and relationship. If your platform is really big on YouTube
and theirs is really big on Instagram, then maybe you’re going
to post your stuff there, and they’re going to
post their stuff. Try to provide double the value
if you’re a little bit smaller and then you’ll grow. You’ll grow organically and
that’s just part of the grind. -Thank you. Next question. -Could you comment on or perhaps
share an anecdote that illustrates some of the challenges you faced
raising venture capital money? -Yes, it sucks. -Oh, man. Raising is the worst. I’ve gotten feedback that I
shouldn’t say that on stage because you’re not
supposed to say that, but I really think that people should
know that it is difficult for everyone. These stories about like, “Little white boy had a napkin, and he got a million
dollars,” that happens but it doesn’t really
happen that way. You still have to do a ton of
work no matter who you are, and particularly once you get
beyond the million dollar check. When you get into four, five, six,
seven, eight, 10, 30 million dollars, there is a lot of things
that go into that. When I first started the company and
then made the decision to raise after being very resistant to it, I
did what I think a lot of people do. I went after investors
who look like me and who I thought understood
what I was building, and I got rejected by
every single one of them. I was emotionally just beat
down because I felt if like, “If Black investors
don’t get it, how is it possible that I can go to Sand
Hill Road and they’re going to get it?” I just stopped raising, put my head back down, and started
to build the business even more. It was only until I had people
really advocating for me and saying, “Morgan, you have to raise. You are slowing
down the business, and there are people who
will invest with you.” I changed the type of investor
profile that I went after. I went after investors who cared
about the value of Blavity, they cared about, “Even if we’re
not Uber, if we’re not Pinterest, Uber, and these unicorn type
of companies,” you existing, Blavity existing and being a
part of the media landscape and the tech landscape is going
to keep pushing things forward, and it’s going to provide value in a way that can still be a
significantly large business. Once I started to talk to investors
that align with those types of values, it became much easier
of a conversation. By then, our numbers were so ridiculous
because we were just working, that they were like,
“Is this for real?” I was like, “It’s real.” They were like, “Do you
have Facebook ads?” I was like, “What’s
a Facebook ad?” I had no idea because I wasn’t
trying to build a media company. That would be my advice to
people who are in a position where you feel you have an idea or you
have something that doesn’t fit the norm. Investors may not get
it in the beginning, try to identify people who share
the same values as your company, your mission, and funds
that also share that, it will make the conversation
a little bit easier. -Were there any
stumbles along the way? Any things you wish you
could redo that you learned from that were
particularly instructive? -Yes, cash flow is a thing. One of the things
as a media company, often times you have big
deals with huge companies, and they’re net 150, 145, so they don’t pay you until after
the campaign has happened, and then they go through their account
receivables and all those things. As a company who didn’t raise
that much in the beginning, I didn’t take that in consideration
when doing our projections, and we were growing so fast, and
we had all the great deals. Who says no to Buick, who
says no to Coca-Cola? You say, “Yes, I want
all these checks.” Wait, now we have to
go make the content, build those teams, and then we need to
figure out how to collect the money back. Even just the details of running
a vast growing media company on the operational side
were quite difficult. There’s other mistakes that we made along
the way that could have drowned us at such a young stage. -How many employees
are you now in total? –: 55 full-time. -How is that distributed? How many are editors? -Most of them are in sales, operations, and now engineering. We’re headquarters here
in LA down the street, downtown, and then we also have an
office that we just opened up in Atlanta which will be focusing on
engineering and design. It’s been a fun ride building a
inclusive tech company of the future. Most of our employees,
this is their first job. Not just first job at that? –First job ever. Their perception in having worked in
a job that doesn’t look like mine where I don’t have managers, almost all of my
directors are women. It’s a very progressive
workplace. Then we have a layer of employees
where that’s all they’ve ever known. The things they complain
about they’re like, “There’s not enough bananas
today,” I’m just like, “But we’re women, we’re good.” -You’re in for a big surprise. -Yes, right. Vice versa for those who have
been in a workplace for 15 years, they come and they’re like, “This is insane that I can come
to work and be my full self, that I can tell my employer that I’m pregnant
four weeks in and it’s not a thing.” That is something that’s
really freeing in our space. Something that I’m excited to see
as I continue to grow as a CEO and not just a founder, help continue to make sure our culture
stays that way as we get bigger. -AfroTech is next week? Your big conference
in San Francisco? -It is in four days, yes. -Wow, I’m sure you
have your hand full. I just want to thank you so
much for being here with us and for sharing
all that with us. Good luck next week. Thank you all for being here. Thank you for your questions. -Thanks, guys. Thank you, Stan.

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