Morgan DeBaun on Reaching 20M Millennials – With Kat Manalac at the Female Founders Conference
Kat Manalac is a Partner at YC.
Kat Manalac – And now I’m really, really excited to introduce you to our next speaker, Morgan DeBaun, she’s the founder of Blavity. Blavity has grown into the largest media company and lifestyle brand for black millennials. Morgan started Blavity in 2014 and since then they’ve built a community of over seven million readers, and they’ve raised a million dollars which they announced last year. I’m really excited to introduce her to you and hear more of her story. Welcome Morgan.
Morgan DeBaun – Hi.
Kat Manalac – Hello. I moved on to this couch so we could get real cozy.
Morgan DeBaun – I love it. Hi.
Kat Manalac – Hi. For folks who might not know you very well, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and what you were doing before you started Blavity?
Morgan DeBaun – I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, Midwest.
Morgan DeBaun – I went to school at Wash U in St. Louis as did my three other co-founders. I actually started off wanting to be a teacher, that’s how I was gonna change the world and particularly black youth. And then I got in the classrooms and very quickly realized that even the best principals and the best teachers were restricted by laws, regulations, etc. And so I was like, “I’ll be a politician. No problem.” And so I switched my major, I became a Poli Sci major, I was in student government. Then I realized that everyone was influenced by money, right? And that, you know, we all know that now obviously after what’s going on. And so I was like, “Okay, well, this is interesting. How do I both help the people that I care about in my community and make enough money so that I can influence other people to make better decisions?” Technology and entrepreneurship is one of the best ways to do that, so that started my journey. After I graduated from college, I moved to Silicon Valley and to Mountain View specifically, and worked as a product manager. It was a big culture shock moving from St. Louis to the bay.
Kat Manalac – What was the original vision? At what point did you decide to leave Intuit and start Blavity?
Morgan DeBaun – Part of it was I’ve always been tinkering, I’ve always been kind of making things. Blavity is just the first one you’ve heard of.
Kat Manalac – You had a bunch of side projects?
Morgan DeBaun – Tons of side projects, websites, and I think when I was…
Kat Manalac – Can you tell us about one random one that didn’t work?
Morgan DeBaun – Of course.
Kat Manalac – Okay.
Morgan DeBaun – Let’s see, do you want the biggest failure or the one that I think is still a really good idea?
Kat Manalac – Can we hear both?
Morgan DeBaun – Okay. The biggest failure was (related to) personal finance. When you graduate, when you’re in college, you have no money, right? Like, maybe I have a couple of thousand dollars, but you don’t really have any money. Then you graduate and you go work at Google or Intuit and you’re making $50,000 plus out of nowhere. 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. So I launched a personal finance calculator. But you know, there are thousands of those, there was no differentiation or anything. It was a good idea, but not really a business. One project I launched that I still think is a good idea I did in college with two other of my friends, one is now my CTO and the other one has gone to raise millions of dollars. It was called Quad Connect. You could use it to find free food on campus. This was before Facebook events were a thing, so we were scraping all these campus calendars and aggregating it because at the end of semester you run out of food and meal points, so you’re trying to find all these free food events. No one’s done it. If someone decides to do it, let me know.
Kat Manalac – That is a classic college student problem. I’m surprised no one has solved it yet. Okay, going back to Blavity, what was the original vision for Blavity? And how has it evolved?
Morgan DeBaun – The original vision which is still the same today, is to create products and experiences that celebrate black people. We’re solving a few different problems. One, while working at Intuit, what was really exciting was that they’re really great at designing. They’re really good at creating experiences. 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 how to design, how to be really specific about creating a product for a specific user and being ruthless about who you’re creating for. What I’ve realized is that no one was doing that for me. There are a thousand problems that black people have and people with color have, and women have that this entire industry ignores. And so with Blavity, we wanted to create different products and we wanted to create different experiences to fix that. On the personal side, when Mike Brown happened, I was working at Intuit, and I was at Demand Force, a startup that Intuit had bought. And it’s a great company, but it’s very white and very brown, and it’s a sales company.
I was in business development, and they didn’t really know what to do with me…when Mike Brown happened, my world exploded, you know, being from St. Louis and I was watching things happen on Facebook. And again, you have to remember that this was two, three years ago. This was before trending topics from Facebook, right? So, it was very difficult to find information. You had to go to Twitter and Periscope and Vine.
And there were a lot of things happening but 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 at St. Louis. Individual people became our sources of information. Now these people, you know, we know who they are, Deray Nata, Sean Right. But back then they were just normal people. And so to find them was really difficult. And so Blavity had started. We had started to tinker a little bit. That’s when I ultimately quit and decided we need to do this. Black media is moving too slowly 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.
Morgan DeBaun – You know. We care a little bit more now but back then, nobody was really paying attention. So, that was the beginning.
Kat Manalac – How did you get your very first users?
Morgan DeBaun – We started as an email newsletter. One of the insights was that black people and people of color actually over indexed in watching television. It’s about eight hours of 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, like 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 kinda have to be a cool kid to be able to find it. And so Blavity, what we were doing was curating an email newsletter that was your top ten things you needed to see this week, and they were videos.
Kat Manalac – And did it start out as just you curating everything?
Morgan DeBaun – Oh, yeah. And there are 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 two months building this really cool website. It had all the algorithms and stuff. It started from the newsletter to YouTube, it went to the website. Again, this is back when Upworthy was a thing. But everybody hated it. They did not like going to this other website. They were like, “No, we’re just gonna go to YouTube.” And so that was our first fail. And, you know, we kept iterating from there, but yeah, it was an email newsletter in the beginning.
Kat Manalac – How did you realize that people weren’t into the video aspect of this and they wanted that text, they wanted to read?
Morgan DeBaun – I thought that it was just because the site was ugly because it was, you know, you 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, “Okay, fine. We’ll go lighter, we’ll add some call to action buttons.” Nobody cared. So, then it was like, okay, how do we drive traffic? Maybe people just need to learn how to type in blavity.com, like they’re not used to the brand, so we started doing content marketing. We created a blog and wrote stories about the people behind the videos. And I hired bloggers, we didn’t hire them for pay because we didn’t have any money. But I brought on bloggers and the blog was getting like a thousand times more traffic than the videos themselves. And the URL was insane, right, it was like blog.blavity.com/blog. It was ridiculous. I tracked 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. blavity.com became the blog and videos.blavity.com became the video site and the video site just died. But the blog I spent, you know, a weekend making a WordPress site versus this other site. We’d spent two months hard coding everything. It was, you know, it was supposed to be this big tech thing.
Kat Manalac – That site, how do you kill your darlings? It was something that you spent two months birthing and suddenly you realized it’s not gonna work out?
Morgan DeBaun – I kill my darlings all the time. Left and right, all the time. I mean, I think failing first is part of how you move in this world, particularly in technology. And especially consumers, social media, engagement community. So, yeah, I am agnostic about how we reach people. I just wanna make sure that we do.
Kat Manalac – You have built this incredibly passionate community. I see people tweeting about Blavity all the time. How did you go about growing and nurturing that community and keeping them coming back?
Morgan DeBaun – The first thing, which is part of our values is that we don’t make it about us. At Blavity, we always try to ask ourselves how — does this help someone else? Is it information they can use? Is it video that’s gonna make them laugh while they’re sitting at work feeling lonely? Is it information 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 depressed 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. So we said, “Okay, we’re going to be about the culture,” like we’re going to promote the artists in Brooklyn. We’re going to promote the EP that just launched that the fader is not gonna cover. We’re gonna give them cameras, we’re gonna give them resources, and we’re gonna try 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.
So, Quinta B. who’s huge at Buzzfeed, well, three years ago we put a camera in Quinta’s hand and we were like, “Go around and 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? Focusing on the community and focusing on building from the ground up as opposed from the top down is really important.
Kat Manalac – It’s really about empowering the creators in the community and it’s not about like your editorial vision anymore.
Morgan DeBaun – Right, just get out of the way, right? We’ve invested a lot of time and money on building out the platform of Blavity. We’re not on WordPress anymore. We’ve built our own website and our own CMS, our content management system, so that we can enable user to know your content. It’s about 50% of our content today is actually from the community which has its own problems but in the long run, you know, it does.
Kat Manalac – Our community has definitely, I hear you, iterating.
Morgan DeBaun – Oh, yeah, you know.
Kat Manalac – Yeah.
Morgan DeBaun – 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, friction lesser for people to share those stories in their site, their ideas.
Kat Manalac – So, you raised a million dollars.
Morgan DeBaun – A little bit more actually, yeah. I had another round that hasn’t really been announced.
Kat Manalac – Oh, awesome. Congrats. And so, as we were talking about (backstage), it’s particularly difficult for women or people of color to raise. Did you feel like there were barriers you faced? What was your strategy for getting around them?
Morgan DeBaun – I think I made a mistake that a lot of first time founders make which is you raise, you go and look at your competitors, right? You go look, stalk them on AngelList, you look at them on CrunchBase. You know, you’re like, “Okay, who invested in them? We’re like them but for us and so I’m gonna go talk to whoever invested in them. Those investors are gonna get it.” No, that’s not true. They might get it, but they’re like, “We already did that.” Or they’re gonna compare your numbers to their numbers. And so for me, thinking about Mic or Hello Giggles or Refinery — they had already raised money. Some of them even before they launched, right? So, my numbers and their numbers, not gonna match up. It’s something like, “Well, can you take out all that money they spent on Facebook ads and then compare me?” You know, no, the investors that’s too far down. I 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 Blavity. They just saw, so you’re a blogger on WordPress, and you don’t even write. Like you aren’t a journalist, right? And I’m like, “I mean, like 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 want those are yet. But because it’s in such an underserved community, and because we’re gonna work really hard, we’re gonna figure it out. And I just need a little bit more time and a little bit more space.”
Kat Manalac – So you were like, “Here’s where we’re at today,” but you didn’t have that bigger picture.
Morgan DeBaun – 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. You know, I’m here.” But you have to sell it. And so I didn’t do it well. I made it 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 walked into the room and people were like, “Those cannot be your numbers.” And we’re like, “They are.” Right? And so then people had to make a choice. Do you wanna 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’s no ambiguity there and some people, the answer was no. They were like, “No, I don’t believe them. Okay, bye.” But I believed it and I think, you know, now obviously three years later, there are some people who have been like, “Hey.” And I’m like, “Hmmm. No, you don’t get in this deal. Absolutely not, absolutely not.” It’s true.
Kat Manalac – You made it so good they couldn’t ignore you?
Morgan DeBaun – Absolutely, which is hard when you’re bootstrapping, it’s expensive.
Kat Manalac – And so how long did you bootstrap?
Morgan DeBaun – We bootstrapped for a year. Living in San Francisco, which is really hard. I was on that OPO.
Kat Manalac – And how big was your team then?
Morgan DeBaun – Paid? Zero. Unpaid, we had probably around six or seven people, or paid by 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. When I raised our first round it really went to just paying for all the things that I was already personally paying for and to hire the people that were already working for free, so it didn’t actually go very far. But it was a, you know, it’s a success indicator that I think the market could then say, “Okay, now we can go give them some more money.”
Kat Manalac – How has your job changed from the time you were bootstrapping to now?
Morgan DeBaun – I would have never done this when I was bootstrapping. I think that now it’s very much for our 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 a definitely a lot of culture and trends. And so yeah, I spend a lot of my time just trying to remove barriers from my team, make it easy for them to do their jobs. And then storytelling and making sure that people know what we’re up to.
Kat Manalac – What are the next steps for Blavity? What is the big vision?
Morgan DeBaun – Just to kind of share a little bit more about what we do, Blavity is a media company and lifestyle brand. We have two conferences, AfroTech which is a tech conference here in San Francisco, and we have EmpowerHer which is a women’s conference which moves around and it was just in Chicago a few weeks ago. We have three websites: blavity.com, 21Ninety which is a new brand that we just launched for black women specifically, a lifestyle brand, and then the conference ladders up underneath it. And then we acquired a third company that we just announced last quarter called Shadow and Act. It’s like a black Hollywood reporter. And so, you know, what’s Ava DuVernay doing, what’s Issa Rae doing, what’s the trailer that just released. But also because there’s such a huge energy around video creation and black creators, we can curate, engage with people of 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. So, that’s kind of the world that we are right now.
Kat Manalac – How do you decide what to test out or what to sort of keep and what to kill?
Morgan DeBaun – 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, this is a separate Instagram account because we knew that, if we posted women in their Afros and like all this stuff on our Blavity account, all the guys would be like, “Rrr,” right? And so we’re like, “Okay, 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, I’m like, “Ugh, of course it is, right?” Women are amazing. And so then we’re like, “Okay, we’ll launch a Twitter account.” We didn’t have separate websites at all. That was all going back to blavity.com, but we have separate voices on social. And then from there, we’re like, “Okay. Well, maybe we should start writing content specifically for this demographic.” And then that was growing like crazy. And then we said, “Okay. 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 wanna release a notebook that’s like a day planner that’s talking about living your best life for women, and put Afros on the cover, that’s not gonna work on Blavity. It wants its own brand. And so we went back to the drawing board and said, “Okay, 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 to scratch and designed it, and launched.
Kat Manalac – That’s pretty cool. So, you have all these from properties. Longer term, are you just going to keep experimenting and see what works? Or are you driving towards a specific, you know, one specific goal?
Morgan DeBaun – Yeah. 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 gonna get, and it’s 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 gonna get. If we’re gonna do a music festival, you know that probably it’s a launch, Chance The Rapper, Donald Glover, right? Like you can kind of say in your mind what we’re gonna do or what that might look like, what that experience might look like. If we’re gonna do a Netflix show, people will say, “Okay, like maybe a Dear White People vibe.” There are some things that we can do and expand into as 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’re 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, or 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 indie black creator space.
Kat Manalac – For founders who are building brands right now and focusing on that, do you have specific advice for them?
Morgan DeBaun – 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, like you’re doing a lot. And so I sliced it down so that they could understand me. 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 it took me too long to 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.
Kat Manalac – Was there a fear that you were gonna lose focus? Did you have to edit down your vision because you wanted investors to believe that you were focused on one thing?
Morgan DeBaun – Absolutely, yeah. When 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.
Kat Manalac – How do you get over that fear?
Morgan DeBaun – 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. You know, I’m lucky to have a very, like 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 and particularly for women to have that community because it is tough, it’s very difficult.
Kat Manalac – If you could give advice to female founders, especially black female founders out there who are just starting out, like what would you tell them?
Morgan DeBaun – I would say you don’t have to ask for permission. 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. Like, for example, when I said I was gonna quit my job and run a startup, everyone was like, “Name me a black female founder.” And I was like, “Mm, huh.” And they were like, “Okay, 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, “Ooh,” you know. And so there are all these reasons and all this data that shows that we shouldn’t exist, right? If you look at the numbers like you literally wouldn’t go outside. It’s true. So, you know, don’t. Don’t listen to them. Don’t ask for permission, don’t wait for someone to tell you that it’s okay to be great and to do what you want to do. So, that’s my life.
Kat Manalac – That’s awesome. And we’re right on time, thank you so much.
Morgan DeBaun – Thank you.