Morgan DeBaun on Reaching 20M Millennials - With Kat Manalac at the Female Founders Conference | Transcription

Transcription for the video titled "Morgan DeBaun on Reaching 20M Millennials - With Kat Manalac at the Female Founders Conference".


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Intro (00:00)

And now I'm really, really excited to introduce you to our next speaker, Morgan DeBond. She's the founder of Blavity. So Blavity has grown into the largest media company and lifestyle brand for black millennials. So Morgan started Blavity in 2014. And since then, they've built a community of over 7 million readers. And they've raised $1 million, which they announced last year. So I'm really excited to introduce her to you and hear more of her story. So welcome, Morgan. Hi. Hello. I moved on to this couch so we could get real cozy. I love it. Hi. Hi. OK. So I want to-- so for folks who might not know you very well, I'd like to just kick it off. Tell us a little bit about yourself, maybe where you're from, and what you were doing before you started Blavity. Totally. So I'm from St. Louis, Missouri. Any St. Louis out there? No? OK. Oh, some? OK. So I went to school at Wash U in St. Louis, as did my three other co-founders. And I actually started off wanting to be a teacher. That's how I was going to change the world, and particularly black youth, and give me more access. And then I got in the classrooms and very quickly realized that even the best principals and the best teachers were totally restricted by laws, regulations, et cetera.

Founder'S Journey And Business Insights

Leaving Google to Solve a Problem (01:17)

And so I was like, I'll be a politician. No problem. And so I switched my major. I became a poly-site major. I was in student government. And then realized that everyone was influenced by money, right? We all know that now, especially after what's going on. And so I was like, OK, well, this is interesting. How do I both help the people that I care about in my community make enough money so I can influence other people, make better decisions? And technology and entrepreneurship is one of the best ways to do that. And so that kind of started my journey. And then after I graduated from college, moved to Silicon Valley to Mountain View specifically, and worked at Intuit as a product manager. So I went-- big culture shock, I think, moving from St. Louis to the Bay. But here we are. So what was the original vision? At what point did you decide to leave Intuit and start? So that's a great question. I think part of it was I've always been tinkering. I've always been kind of making things. Blabiney is just the first one you've heard of, right? So you had a bunch of side projects. Tons of side projects, websites. And I think when I was-- Can you tell us about one random one that didn't work? Of course. Let's see. Do we want the biggest failure? Yes. The one that I think is still a really good idea. OK, sorry. Can we do both? Really quick. OK, the biggest failure was personal finance. So basically, when you graduate-- when you're in college, you have no money, right? Maybe you have a couple thousand dollars. But you don't really have any money. Then you graduate, and you go work at a Google or an Intuit, and you're making $50,000 plus out of nowhere, right? And a lot of people don't know what the allocation should be for savings or spending on rent or if you want to buy a car. And so it was a personal finance calculator. No, there's thousands of those. There's no differentiation or anything. So it was a good idea, but not really a business. And then the one that I still think is a really good idea, I did in college with two other of my friends.

A Failure Every Parent Can Relate To (03:32)

One is now my CTO, and the other one has gone on to raise millions of dollars in manual BAMFO. And it was called Quad Connect. And so it was basically you could find free food on campus. So this was before Facebook events really were a thing. So we were scraping all these campus calendars and then aggregating it. And because at the end of the semester, you run out of meal points, and you're trying to find all these free food events. Yeah. No one's done it. So if someone decides to do it, just let me know. This is like a classic college student problem. I'm surprised actually no one has solved it yet. Right? Yeah. OK, but going back to Blavity, what was the original vision for Blavity that you had? And how has it evolved? Yeah, so the original vision, which is still actually the same today, is to create products and experiences in which we're celebrating black people. And it's like the problem that we saw, the problem that I saw was a few different things. One, working it into it, what was really exciting was they're really great at designing. They're really good at creating experiences. Like TurboTax is supposed to be really boring, but it's not that bad. It's not that painful. QuickBooks, same thing. Right? Now that I'm on the other side, I'm like, oh, I love QuickBooks. Right? But that process of learning, like how to design for delight, how to be really specific about creating a product for a specific user and being ruthless about who you're creating for, what I realized was that no one was doing that for me. And so there's 1,000 problems that black people have and people of color have and women have that this entire industry ignores.

Blacity (05:02)

And so with Blavity, we wanted to create different products and we wanted to create different experiences to kind of fix that. And then the thing on the personal side is that Mike Brown happened when I was working at Intuit and I was actually at Demand Force as a startup that Intuit had bought. It's a great company, but it's very white and very bro. And it's a sales company. And so I was in business development, I was kind of like sitting on the floor and I was like, OK, this is interesting. They didn't really know what to do with me. My hair was like really big. There's like, I don't really know where you came from. I came from like the motherland, I came from Intuit.

Black Media (05:50)

So it was just like it was a lot, I think, for people. And I felt that. And I kind of carried it with me. And then when Mike Brown happened and my world was exploding, being from St. Louis and watching things happen on Facebook. And again, you have to remember that this was two, three years ago. This was before trending topics on Facebook. So it was very difficult to find information. So you had to go to Twitter and Periscope and Vine. And there was a lot of things happening where there was no central-- there was no central way to find out what was happening in a city. And then things started to explode across the country. Things were happening in Baltimore, things were happening in Cleveland, things were happening in St. Louis. And so individual people became our sources of information. Now these people, we know who they are. DeRay, Netta, Sean, right?

Finding the first users (06:37)

But back then, they were just normal people. And so to find them was really difficult. And so Blabity had started. We had started to tinker a little bit. That's when I ultimately quit and said, we need to do this. Black media is moving too slow because they're antiquated in terms of magazines and newspapers. They never really made the switch to mobile first and digital first. And then millennial media, they don't care. Yeah. We care a little bit more now, but back then, nobody was really paying attention. So that's the beginning. Yeah. So since then-- so basically, maybe going back to that first moment, how did you get your very first users? Yeah. So we started as an email newsletter. And one of the insights was that black people and people of color actually over index and watching television. So it's about eight hours a day on average. It's a lot. The average person watches about five. And at the same time, we're huge content creators. Like anything on Twitter, the funniest stuff on Twitter, probably came from a black person. The memes, all of that stuff, right? And so it was interesting to me that you take both of those things, and yet we don't really have a place to find that in one place. You kind of have to be a cool kid and be able to find it. And so Blabity, what we were doing was curating an email newsletter that was your top 10 things you needed to see this week. And they were videos. And did it start out as just you curating everything? Oh, yeah. And there's probably some people in the audience where I just scraped your email and put it on the newsletter. So yeah. And then we went straight to YouTube from the newsletter. And then we spent like two months building this really cool website. It had all the algorithms and stuff. And so from the newsletter to YouTube, you went to the website. Again, this is back when Upworthy was a thing and Facebook, right? There was all these different things happening. Everybody hated it. They did not like going to this other website. They're like, no, we're just going to go to YouTube. And so that was our first fail. And we kept iterating from there. But yeah, it was an email newsletter in the beginning.

Diving into the data (08:47)

So how did you realize that people weren't into the video aspect of this and really wanted that text? They wanted to read. Right. So I thought that it was just because the site was ugly, because it was. We always launch things really ugly in the beginning, because why make it pretty if you don't know if that's what they want. So then I made it prettier. I was like, OK, fine. We'll go lighter. We'll add some call to action buttons. All these things. Nobody cared. So then it was like, OK, how do we drive traffic? Maybe people just need to learn how to type in like they're not used to the brand. So we started doing content marketing. So we created a blog and then wrote stories about the people actually behind the videos and I hired bloggers. We didn't hire and pay them, because we didn't have any money. But I brought on bloggers. And then the blog was getting like 1,000 times more traffic than the videos themselves. And the URL was like insane. It was like It was ridiculous. And so I was looking-- I mean, I track everything religiously like every day, Google Analytics every hour, looking at real time analytics. And you can see the difference. And I just didn't ignore it. And so we switched it. So became the blog. And then became the video site. And not just site, just died. Just like dead. But the blog, I spent a weekend making a WordPress site versus another site that we spent two months and hard coded everything that was supposed to be this big tech thing. So how do you-- how do you kill your darlings? Like something you spent two months birthing, basically. And then suddenly you realize it's not going to work out. I kill my darlings all the time. Left and right, all the time. I mean, I think failing fast is like part of how you move in this world, particularly in technology space, and especially consumer social media engagement community. So yeah, I am agnostic about how we reach people. I just want to make sure that we do. So you have built this incredibly passionate community. I see people tweeting about Blavity all the time. And how did you go about growing and nurturing that community and keeping them coming back?

Meet the Founder: Mitchell (10:59)

So the first thing, which is part of our values, is that we don't make it about us. So Blavity, we always try to ask ourselves, how does this help someone else? Is it information that they can use? Is it video that's going to make them laugh while they're sitting at work feeling lonely? Is it information in the morning that they would never get if they were just scrolling through their Twitter feeds, unless they followed us, of course? And once you remove yourself from what do I think people need versus what is it that will help them, because they've said that they need this or they've indicated through behaviors that they need it, then it actually becomes really refreshing and easy, because you just have to listen. So in the beginning with Blavity, what we heard was that creators, like young people who have these amazing products or creations, weren't getting the press and weren't able to get on stage and do the things that they needed to do to get to the next level and to really ultimately monetize. And that's every creator's got to make money, right? And so we said, OK, we're going to be about the culture. Like, we're going to promote the artist in Brooklyn. We're going to promote the EP that just launched that the fader is not going to cover. We're going to give them cameras. We're going to give them resources. And we're going to train them and give them money even. And that was the beginning. And then what's interesting is as they've grown, we've grown, right? So Quinta B, who's huge at BuzzFeed, well, three years ago, we put a camera in Quinta's hand and we're like, go run around. It was a GoPro. We're like, go run around. And they just show us your life. And then we'll make a video out of it, right? And now she's one of my best friends. And so she's got literally millions and millions of followers. But back then, she maybe had like 50,000, right? So I think focusing on the community and focusing on the building from the ground up as opposed to the top stone was really important. So it's really about empowering the creators and the community. And it's not about your editorial vision anymore. And let's get out of the way. And so we've invested a lot of time and money on building out the platform of Labity. We're not on WordPress anymore. We've built our own website and our own CMS, a content management system, so that we can enable user-generated content. About 50% of our content today is actually from the community, which has its own problems. But in the long run, it does. All communities, definitely. I hear you. You're reigning. Oh, yeah. You know. But in the long run, it's way better. It's scalable. It's empowering. You can build things, systems, and processes that make it efficient and frictionless for people to share their stories and their ideas. So you raised $1 million. A little bit more, actually. Oh, awesome. Well, you raised more than $1 million, yeah? Yeah. Yeah, I had another round that hasn't really been announced. Oh, well, awesome. Congrats. And so as we've been talking about, it's particularly difficult for women or people of color to raise. And so did you feel like there were barriers that you faced? And what was your strategy for getting around them? Yeah, absolutely. So I think I made the mistake that a lot of first-time founders make, which is you raise-- you go and look at your competitors, right? You go look stock someone angel-less. You look at them in crunch base. And you're like, OK, well, who invested in them? We're like them, but for us. And so I'm going to go talk to them. They're going to get it. No, that's not true.

Avoiding Mistakes in Pitching For Investors (14:20)

They might get it, but they're like, well, I already did that. Or they're going to compare your numbers to their numbers. And so for me, thinking about Mike or Hello Giggles or Refinery way back in the day, they had already raised money, some of them even before they launched, right? So my numbers and their numbers, not going to match up, right? So I'm like, well, can you take out all that money they spent on Facebook ads and then compare me? No, investors, that's too far down. And so in the beginning, I definitely made the mistake of going after-- and I'm sharing my mistakes intentionally, so that you guys-- we all make mistakes, right? It's just part of it. And then quickly realized that I wasn't ready. I didn't have the right story. My story was way off. People couldn't understand the ecosystem that I was trying to build with Blabbity. They just saw, so you're a blog on WordPress. And you don't even write. You aren't a journalist, right? And I'm like, I mean, yes, technically that is what I am today. But the vision is this entire world of products and websites and brands and experiences. And I can't tell you what those are yet. But because it's in such an underserved community and because we're going to work really hard, we're going to figure it out. And I just need a little bit more time, a little bit more space. So you hadn't-- you were like, here's where we're at today, but you didn't have that like-- and here's the bigger-- I had some ideas. But then they said, oh, you're doing too many things. You're not focused, right? I was like, well, no, I am focused. I'm here, but you have to sell it, right? And so I didn't do it well. I mean, flat out, I did not sell the story very well. And so I went back into my little cave with our team and kept building and built to a place where it was so ridiculous that we had not raised money, where it was like we walk into the room and people were like, those cannot be your numbers. And we were like, they are, right? And so then people had to make a choice. Do you want to invest in me or not? Do you believe my numbers or not, right? And do you think that this is a business that's worth over $200, $300, $400 million or not? And there was no ambiguity there. And some people, the answer was no, right? And they're like, no, I don't believe it. OK, bye, right? Because I believed it.

Get to being your own teacher (16:41)

And I think now, obviously, three years later, there's some people who have been like, hey. I'm like, hmm, right? No, you don't get in this deal.

Self-My actually work hard (16:53)

Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Extra. So you made it so good, they couldn't ignore you. Absolutely. Which is hard. When you're bootstrapping, it's expensive, right? So how long did you bootstrap? I bootstrapped for a year, living in San Francisco, which was really hard. I was on that OPL. How big was your team then? Paid? Zero? Unpaid, we had probably around six or seven people. Or paid via what I could pay them at the time, $100 a month, $500 a month. I mean, it was very much a community and mission-driven company. You had to really believe in it to be here. But yeah, and so when I raised our first round, it really went to just pay for all the things that I was already personally paying for and to hire the people that were already working for free. It didn't actually go very far. But it was a success indicator that I think the market didn't say, OK, now we can go give them some more money. So how has your job changed from the time you were bootstrapping to now?

Alexis mindset and mastering your own media (17:51)

Yeah, I mean, I would have never done this when I was bootstrapping. I'm working. I'm in the stage. Yeah, I think that now it's very much about people and hiring and sharing the story of Blavity because we are so different than a lot of companies. We're a mix of media. We're a mix of tech. We're definitely a lot of culture and trends. And so yeah, I spent a lot of my time just trying to remove barriers from my team, make it easier for them to do their jobs, and then storytelling and making sure that people know what we're up to. So what are the next steps for Blavity? Like, what is the big vision? Yeah. So just to kind of share a little bit more about what we do. So Blavity is a media company and lifestyle. Like you said, we have two conferences, AfroTech, which is a tech conference here in San Francisco. And we have Empower Heart, which is a women's conference which moves around. It was just in Chicago a few weeks ago. We have three websites. So we have, 2190, which is a new brand that we just launched for Black Women, specifically, lifestyle brand. And then the conference ladder's up underneath it. And then we actually acquired a third company that we just announced last quarter called Shadow and Act, which is focused on-- it's like a Black Hollywood reporter. So what's Ava DuVernay doing? What's E-CRA doing? What's the trailer that just got released? But also because of such a huge kind of energy around video creation and Black creators, we can curate, engage with people, web series, all the new web series releases, and things like that. And then we've tested a lot of things like e-commerce and others.

What does the future look like (19:24)

So that's kind of the world that we are right now. How do you decide what to test out or what to keep and what to kill? Yeah, it's very much based off of numbers. It's very much based off of speed of traction and then comparing different things at once. So for example, with our women's brand, which started off called Blavity Lifestyle-- so it's just a separate Instagram account because we knew that if we posted women and their afros and all this stuff on our Blavity account, all the guys would be like, ah, right? And so we're like, OK, cool. We'll create a separate brand. It deserves its own space. It deserves its own voice. And then that was actually growing faster than Blavity. So we're like, oh, of course it is. Women are amazing. And we're very much like, I'm a woman, right? All these things. And so then we're like, OK, well, we'll launch a Twitter account, right? And we didn't have separate websites at all. We were all going back to But we had separate voices on social. And then from there, we're like, OK, well, maybe we should start writing content specifically for this demographic. And then that was growing like crazy. And then we said, OK, well, maybe we should just launch a separate brand because some of the things that we want to do really don't fit under the Blavity brand. Like if I want to release-- like make a notebook that's like a day planner that's talking about living your best life for women and put afros in the cover and all this stuff, that's not going to work on Blavity. It warrants its own brand. And so we went back to the drawing board and said, OK, what would a company for black women look like? What would a brand for black women look like? What's in the space already? And then we went back from the scratch and designed it and launched. Yeah. So you have all these different properties. And so kind of longer term-- Yeah. --are you just going to keep experimenting and see what works? Or are you driving towards a specific-- one specific goal? Yeah.

Specific Initiatives At Blavity

Blavity 2190 & Shadow & Act (21:37)

So the future of Blavity, like way far away from now, is that Blavity is a brand that when you see it or you feel it or you're around it, you know exactly what you're going to get. And it's a positive impression and energy around black people. And if you're black, it's like, oh, this was designed exactly for me. So for example, if Blavity throws a party, you know what you're probably going to get. If we're like, we're going to do a music festival, you know you're probably going to get salon, Chance the Rapper, Donald Glover. You can kind of say in your mind what we're going to do or what that might look like, what that experience might look like. If we're like, we're going to do a Netflix show. People would be like, OK, maybe a Dear White People vibe. There's some things that we can do and expand into from a brand perspective that will just be an extension of who we are. On the website side and on the media company side, I certainly think there's plenty of communities that have not been touched. So for example, music. There's not many music media brands that focus on black culture, which is ironic, considering how much black musicians run the music industry, right, are the creators of the music industry. And so that's certainly an area that we're thinking about. And trying to figure out what is our voice in the kind of the indie black creator space. For founders who are building brands right now and focusing on that, what do you have specific advice for them? Yeah, I think be unapologetic about having a big vision. I think in the beginning, I felt like the world couldn't take all of me. They were like, hmm, it's a little much, right? You're doing a lot. And so I sliced it down so that they could understand me.

Global Revolution In Education

Supporting a global revolution in education (23:23)

And I think I did that too long. Sometimes you might have to do it to get to a certain person. But I think that I, from a mental perspective, it took me too long to just embrace everything that I wanted us to be. And now that we have as a company, I think everyone feels much more empowered to think big and to try things and not be as scared of failure. Was there a fear that you were going to lose focus? Was that it? That you edited down because you were like, I want maybe investors-- Right. --to believe that we are focused on this particular way. Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, you solve for what you think is your biggest pain point. And when you act out of fear, I think that you limit yourself. And that's a problem. How do you get over that fear? I don't know. I'm still working on it. I mean, I think that it's being self-aware and surrounding yourself with people who believe in you. I'm lucky to have a very strong tribe of people who are always pushing me and always saying, keep going. Go bigger, go harder, go faster. And I think that's really important, particularly for women to have that community, because it is tough. It's very difficult. So if you could give advice to female founders, especially black female founders out there who are just starting out, what would you tell them? I would say you don't have to ask for permission. I think sometimes we wait for other people to validate us, because we've spent a lot of time not being validated and not seeing ourselves in places. For example, when I said I was going to quit my job and run a startup, everyone was like, name me a black female founder. And I was like, mm. And they're like, OK, now name me a black CEO, a black female CEO who doesn't have a law degree or an engineering degree or a business degree. And I was like, oh. And so there's all these reasons and all this data that shows that we shouldn't exist. If you look at the numbers, you literally wouldn't go outside. Yeah. So it's true. So don't. Just don't listen to them. Don't ask for permission. Don't wait for someone to tell you that it's OK to be great and to do what you want to do. So that's my advice. That's awesome. Right on time. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thanks. Thank you.

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