Blavity has a big opportunity with Black millennials, despite struggling to fit the VC formula
Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history, according to four different polls cited recently by the New York Times that suggest anywhere from 15 million to 26 million people in the U.S. have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others since Floyd’s death in late May.
Blavity, a six-year-old, L.A.-based media company that’s focused on Black culture, could hardly be better positioned to help outraged Americans better understand what’s really been going on. Blavity founder Morgan DeBaun says the outfit receives at least a handful of videos each week that feature egregious acts against Black Americans, and the same has been true since DeBaun, working at the time at Intuit, founded the company in 2014 after unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down by a police office in her native Missouri.
Blavity tells the stories that the mainstream media has largely been missing, but that’s only part of the story. The company has also become a go-to destination for a growing number of Black millennials interested in fresh takes on culture and politics; in Black Hollywood and travel (via two other properties it runs); and in its sizable networking events, one of which attracted 10,000 people last year.
Last week, we talked with DeBaun about Blavity — which has raised a comparatively conservative $11 million to date, including from GV, Comcast Ventures, and Plexo Capital — to learn more about how the company seizes this moment, and whether investors see the opportunity. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity (you can hear the full discussion here).
TC: You started Blavity in part to address a need you were feeling to connect with others after Michael Brown’s death. What were you reading at the time?
MD: The unfortunate answer is I wasn’t reading anything. I hadn’t really felt the need to stay connected to local or regional or Black issues until I moved out of my community and found myself wondering [from California], what is going on.
Historically in the Black community, we’ve had our own networks and platforms and brands: the African American newspapers in various cities, Essence, Jet, Ebony, and more recently, The Root. [But] a significant amount of media publications are still focused on entertainment and Hollywood and not necessarily on news. And so there was a huge gap of information that I felt wanting to understand.
This was before Twitter really became a source of information and truth for so many people, so there was a gap of information from what I saw happening on the ground in St. Louis and in text messages and as part of an email list with friends who were on the ground, and what I saw in the mainstream media. And to me, that was a huge miss, because we needed to be connected at that point more than ever so we could help impact change.
TC: There’s a lot of social injustice covered by Blavity. Two of the most popular stories on the site as we speak are about Sacramento police officer who placed a plastic bag on a 12-year-old’s head, and a cop who was arrested and charged after tasing a pregnant woman on her stomach. Are these stories central to making Blavity a resource to its readers?
MD: We tend to be a reflection of the pulse of the reality and the Black experience, and we do share stories and news that people might not find other places. I get the question more recently about: Does this time feel different? Are we covering different things? And unfortunately, the answer is that we’ve been covering these stories weekly since Michael Brown happened. It’s been a critical part of our publication and ethos to ensure that we’re sharing the stories of our community and bringing light to the injustices that are happening.
We also share joy and happiness and celebrations and moments of great accomplishments and local stories of heroes. But certainly right now, we’re making sure that we’re doing our diligence and covering the stories that are very important for this moment in time.
TC: You recently told Forbes that advertisers and marketers do not want to spend money next to Black death and violence. You have to cover these stories because it’s core to what you do, but it’s a double-edged sword for you, it sounds like.
MD: Blavity as an organization has five different brands. So we have a diversified revenue stream where we don’t just rely on display advertising against our news business, because if we did, we would wind up very much similar to what we’ve seen happen [to other struggling media companies]. There was a time when our Facebook page was even blocked because [stories] have gotten flagged as being too violent. And it’s like, well yeah, violence against Black bodies is real. It’s the truth; it’s real news.
So we do have this weird kind of balance that we strike in terms of really making sure that we’re telling the truth and that we are pushing back against our clients, our advertisers, and even Facebook to ensure that Blavity can continue to distribute content. But overall, the news business isn’t our highest revenue-generating business. It’s our conference business and our display ads business across all of our brands, some of which are lifestyle brands.
We also have an ad network that we don’t advertise publicly much, but essentially, we run ads and sales operations for other publishers of color who maybe don’t have the scale to necessarily have their own sales team and ad tech and engineers and things of that nature. We’re fighting for deals against a Vice or a Refinery 29 that also have ad networks, so we wanted to make sure that we could also win those deals and we needed that huge inventory and [that business has] allowed us the flexibility to reinvest [in the rest of the business].
TC: I understand that you’re also starting a paid-for membership-only professional network.
MD: We have an exciting announcement that’ll come out in a few weeks about a new platform that will specifically be a place for young Black professionals to come together to have discussions to learn; to get jobs, because that’s one of our core competencies through [our conference business]; but most importantly, to have discussions around the issues and topics that are trending and that matter. We already do daily conversations through Facebook Live and YouTube and Instagram Live. So we’re trying to build a place where we can have a more private space for those conversations that feels safe and also is a place where people can connect on a deeper level.
TC: Have you noticed a real change in Silicon Valley in the last month or so among investors? Are you seeing interest from firms that previously hadn’t reached out to you?
MD: There are a lot of VCs that perhaps are paying attention, but the bias is so deep that I don’t even think they know how to get out. It.
Have I seen more requests for conversations? Yes. Do I think that that’s going to result in more investments and wires and checks? No. I’m very skeptical of this kind of like performative ‘we care’ flag. The most important metric of success for VCs are returns on their investments. [Venture money] is not a donation; it’s not charity. [VCs look for companies that] meet the metrics of success. And my metrics may be different because I’ve been chronically underfunded despite how much we’ve done.
TC: Can you elaborate?
I think the argument that [later-stage] investors make is, ‘Well, there are just not that many Series A Series B companies to invest in. [But] there are enough companies to invest in, that have your revenue criteria and your goal criteria in terms of a potential exit, but that may not call themselves startups. They may look different. And so you need to do more work to go get them.
There are certainly a lot more people raising funds and having really success in terms of raising their first fund, or that are now on their second fund as a result of this [focus on diversity] and that’s very encouraging and that’s really going to help the seed- and early-stage founders.
I wish I was a founder right now who was raising a seed [round], because I could raise $10 million, there’s so much money going around.
TC: It’s incredible that you could be at a disadvantage because you’re now running a real business with multiple properties, particularly given the opportunity ahead. As you’ve mentioned in the past, there will be a majority minority population in this country in 10 years or so. Are you developing products for other communities, including the Afro-Latino community?
MD: We’ve thought a lot about the sub communities that have huge audiences, are growing quickly, but perhaps don’t have a space or a place to connect. And originally, one of our ideas was to build out our tech platform, then change the UI to accommodate all these [ideas] and become a true house with brands that serve people and communities on a niche level — so Gen Z, Black, LGBT, Afro Latina, for the many Caribbean folks who are in the U.S. and Nigerian Americans; there are so many sub communities within the diaspora.
What we realized is that the overhead and operations of doing that over and over would not be a good idea and that we should figure out how to a build the operations side instead. That’s why we invested in our own ad network, because we can say, ‘Hey, creator in Brooklyn who’s amazing, you have a million monthly unique visitors, which is better than half the publications out there. You don’t have ad sales team. Let’s partner with each other.’ That was the first solution.
The second is this social networking platform that we’ve built. Part of the frustration and tension I felt when I started the company was feeling like there was no one like me. I couldn’t find other Black women who wanted to build a huge company and change the world and do it through tech. There was no one walking around Mountain View who looked like that, and I didn’t know where to go. We want to solve that through technology and through a platform that makes it easy for people to find each other. Hopefully then, once people are more connected, they can build their own companies and come up with their own organizations.