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

“How can we be a clearinghouse for truth? How can we arm people with ways to share their stories?”

This question, posed in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, lead Morgan DeBaun to start a first-of-its-kind media platform. In five years, DeBaun has grown Blavity to 20M users, raised millions in venture funding, and positioned the company as the trusted source of news, culture, entertainment, and community for black millennials.

Sitting down with Wall Street Journal editor Stan Parish during LA18, DeBaun spoke candidly about both the challenges and the opportunities in the current media landscape, including what she’s learned from the recent failures of mainstays in black media and the importance of empowering audiences to have honest dialogues about issues they disagree on.

In this session, Debaun opens up about the strategies and tactics she’s used to grow Blavity into the success it is today. She details how the company generated its first revenue, offers guidance on navigating the ups and downs of fundraising, and gives practical advice for anyone interested in starting a media or content company.

[00:00:09] Morgan DeBaun: 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.

[00:00:58] Stan Parish: 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.

[00:01:13] Morgan: 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--

[00:02:20] Stan: Just immersed in the tech culture. [laughs]

[00:02:21] Morgan: 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.

[00:04:28] Stan: 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?

[00:04:48] Morgan: Yes. 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.

[00:05:59] Stan: Right, and also understand the nuance of what is a giant community and not one--

[00:06:04] Morgan: Right. oh yes.

[00:06:05] Stan: 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?

[00:06:40] Morgan: 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."

[00:07:56] Stan: You're trying to get the holistic experience of delivering content.

[crosstalk]

[00:07:59] Morgan: 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.

[00:08:28] Stan: 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?

[00:08:40] Morgan: 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."

[00:09:30] Stan: Step up and tell the story in your own words.

[00:09:32] Morgan: 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.

[00:09:53] Stan: You broke that story, right?

[00:09:54] Morgan: Yes, we broke the story.

[00:09:55] Stan: That was the first place, that was the first outlet that covered it, period.

[00:09:57] Morgan: 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.

[00:10:25] Stan: People who have been criticizing Donald Trump--

[00:10:28] Morgan: 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.

[00:11:12] Stan: 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?

[00:11:45] Morgan: It's tough in the office. [laughs] 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.

[00:12:24] Stan: How they perceive you.

[00:12:25] Morgan: Yes. 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.

[00:13:51] Stan: You have a sense of that. I'm sure you [unintelligible 00:13:53] 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.

[00:14:00] Morgan: 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?

[00:14:44] Stan: Instantly and without the fake apology.

[00:14:46] Morgan: 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.

[00:14:59] Stan: 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?

[00:15:10] Morgan: 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--

[00:16:45] Stan: 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.

[00:16:55] Morgan: Yes, it's huge. 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?"

[00:17:57] Stan: Hang out.

[00:17:58] Morgan: Right. 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.

[00:18:10] Stan: 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?

[00:18:28] Morgan: 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.

[00:19:04] Stan: Does not. I don't think so.

[00:19:04] Morgan: 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.

[00:19:43] Stan: 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.

[00:19:54] Female Audience 1: Hi, Morgan.

[00:19:55] Morgan: Hi.

[00:19:56] Female Audience 1: What are you doing around intersectionality of like the Afro-Latina experience and bridging with other communities?

[00:20:02] Morgan: 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-Latina'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.

[00:20:29] Female Audience 1: Awesome, thank you.

[00:20:30] Morgan: Great question.

[00:20:32] Male Audience 1: 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?

[00:20:51] Morgan: 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.

[00:23:36] Stan: Next question.

[00:23:37] Male Audience 2: 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?

[00:23:56] Morgan: 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.

[00:24:46] Stan: Thank you. Next question.

[00:24:48] Female Audience: Could you comment on or perhaps share an anecdote that illustrates some of the challenges you faced raising venture capital money?

[00:24:56] Morgan: Yes, it sucks.

[laughter]

[00:24:59] Morgan: 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.

[00:27:33] Stan: Were there any stumbles along the way? Any things you wish you could redo that you learned from that were particularly instructive?

[00:27:42] Morgan: 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.

[00:28:40] Stan: How many employees are you now in total?

[00:28:41] Morgan: 55 full-time.

[00:28:44] Stan: How is that distributed? How many are editors?

[00:28:47] Morgan: 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.

[00:29:15] Stan: First job here, period. Not just first job at that?

[00:29:16] Morgan: 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."

[00:29:40] Stan: You're in for a big surprise.

[00:29:41] Morgan: 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.

[00:30:13] Stan: AfroTech is next week? Your big conference in San Francisco?

[00:30:15] Morgan: It is in four days, yes. [laughs]

[00:30:17] Stan: 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.

[00:30:25] Morgan: Thanks, guys. Thank you, Stan.

[applause]

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