Recently, Fast Company published “Black, Female Funding Stories,” an article that chronicled two of the 11 black female founders who have raised $1 million in funding.
As a black female founder, I was eager to dive into how these women were able to pull off what most of us have not been able to do. What’s striking is that these women — minus their skin color and gender — fit the typical VC-backed prototype: educated from a high-ranking college, alum of a prestigious U.S. tech company, previous start-up success and connections to unicorn founders/venture capitalists. Despite all of those facts working in their favor, these women still experienced considerable challenges to raise Series-A funding. If they could barely raise their funding rounds, what does the future look like for someone like me: an HBCU grad who has no connections to the Silicon Valley?
Here’s what it’s like to be a black female tech founder with no prospect of getting VC funding.
My story begins in 2012. That’s when I initially came up with the idea for kweliTV. My husband finally persuaded me to get a monthly subscription to one of the mega movie streaming platforms. I was holding off because I spent nearly three years of my life (high school and freshman year in college) working for Blockbuster before all hell broke loose at the company. But I eventually broke down. Despite having hundreds of cable channels, I could never find anything I wanted to watch. So we bought an internet TV device and subscribed to the streaming network thinking it would solve my problem. I was wrong. I quickly became disappointed because of the lack of black programming choices that spoke to me. I began looking for an adequate alternative. When I was unsuccessful, I decided that I would do it myself. Crazy, I know.
At the time, I was working as an independent contractor for a DC-area not-for-profit. Basically I was their entire communications department wrapped up in one person, serving as the magazine editor, creative director, videographer, social media guru and ad sales contact while also running my own magazine, emPower. I had grown bored with the not-for-profit. And like many news organizations, I was having a hard time monetizing the publication. My dream since college was to start a magazine. But with the challenges of the publishing industry, I realized that I needed to pivot — and fast. I began researching my streaming network idea. I wrote down my business model, bought the domain names kweli.tv and kwelitv.com, and began looking for funding opportunities. And I found one. It was for women media founders. I had pitched emPower magazine to this particular fund before with no luck. This time I submitted my application for kweliTV. A month later I received good news. I was one of 10 women finalists who would go on to the final round. I was so excited. In the past, I had applied to numerous business plan competition for emPower magazine — only becoming a finalist once. This was the first time I had presented kweliTV to the world and I was a finalist. Maybe I was on to something I told myself. My excitement was short lived when I learned that I didn’t win. When I got feedback, I was told that the judges were not sure about the long-term future of streaming videos. Go figure!
After that experience, life happened a few months later. My baby nephew died, my aunt died, my father was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer and I moved back to Memphis temporarily to help my mom during his treatment — all of this happened in 2012. The following year in 2013, my dad had major complications and spent months in the hospital. My dog became paralyzed and then I became ill. I was in excruciating pain everyday. The doctors told me that I was to have surgery, but I refused until my dad got better. I didn’t want to be incapacitated just in case I needed to fly back to Memphis quickly. So I took medicine everyday to lessen my symptoms. And to top it off, I lost my independent contract job. It was a major blow to my household. When I finally had my surgery late December 2013, kweliTV was all but a distant memory. I transitioned to 2014 worn from what life had thrown me in the previous years.
In early Spring 2014, I came across a post on social media seeking proposals from journalist of color with media venture ideas. Two journalists would receive $20,000 in seed capital to fund their start-ups. I opened the page to learn more and realized that the deadline to submit the application was in less than 48 hours. I remember walking upstairs to the second floor of my rowhouse to my husband’s office and asked him if I should go for it. I was just regaining my strength from my “Job moment” and I wasn’t sure if I could properly pull together my proposal and application in a day and a half. But I decided to go for it anyway. First, I went to my domain registrar and realized that both kweliTV domain names were still available. So I bought them again. I had let them expire. Then, I spent the next 36 hours working on the application, refining my business model from 2012 and crafting my 3-minute video pitch. I didn’t sleep for almost two days straight. And truth be told, I haven’t really had a full night’s sleep since then. After reading over my proposal numerous times, I hit the submit button minutes away from the deadline.
A few weeks later I received great news, I was a finalist for my kweliTV idea. I was so excited. But it quickly turned into doubt as I began researching the other media founders I was competing with: a former publisher/executive editor of a top women’s magazine, a Times magazine reporter, a CUNY fellow, an Ivy League graduate. I began to question whether my pedigree was good enough to compete with these heavy hitters. But I was determined to win.
As part of the program, all of the finalists were to participate in a series of entrepreneurial workshops. The sessions were a part of two annual conferences of our choice. I decided to attend the local conference in DC. Then I was hit with my first start-up stumbling block; I couldn’t afford the $399 price tag to attend the required conference. Now, for many people 400 bucks is not that big of a deal, but I had lost my contract gig and was not making any money. My husband was now paying all of the bills and we didn’t have enough to squeeze out $399. I contacted the program director and told him about my case. He ended up finding a discount ticket for $249. Technically, I didn’t have that either, but I was determined to participate so I took out the last $253 out of my business account. During the conference I got the opportunity to pitch my idea and receive priceless pointers on how to improve my business model and pitch deck. I left the event energized and extremely motivated to win. The way the competition worked, finalists would be rated up to 100 percent: 25 percent from the public vote and 75 percent from the video pitch. For the next few months, my competitors and I were to have supporters rally around our ideas. When the organization released the voting results for the first time, kweliTV was dead last. I used social media and my email network to gain traction around my idea. And after weeks of organizing, I slowly made it to the number one spot. I got the traction that I needed, but I wasn’t sure if my video pitch would be enough to win. I anxiously waited to get the news. I will never forget how excited I was to find out that I was one of the two winners! I got the $20,000 check on December 23. It was the best Christmas present ever. As the clock struck midnight and I transitioned into 2015, I couldn’t help but think back to where I was just a year earlier — defeated, tired, scared and unclear about what the future would hold. In a major contrast, 2015 looked bright and I was ready to take the year head-on. I was determined to turn kweliTV into a multi-million dollar business.
In 2015, I began researching how to build the streaming platform and my core team. Just weeks into 2015 I met my CMO during an MLK service event. The two of us hit it off right away and we began crafting a marketing strategy. At the same time, I was working with two DC-based developers to create the platform. One of the major hurdles I have experienced as a tech founder is that fact that I’m not a techie. I’m a journalist, a creative. The most that I could do was add html code to my WordPress site. I’ve never tackled a technology venture of this magnitude. The person who I initially thought would be CTO did not work out but was still interested in helping us build. I created spreadsheet of the “must-have” functions based off of my research and drew up some mock pages of what I wanted the platform to look like. Another developer with video experience reached out and wanted to help. We created a contract for the work. And with my 20K, the three developers began crafting my vision. The initial goal was to launch the beta on April 15. The beta was to be used to test the idea to the public and then hopefully get funded. But of course nothing goes as planned. The tech team was spending more time on the project than expected. I felt like my vision wasn’t being properly manifested. But I was determined to make it work — most of the money was placed on the development of the beta. I only had one shot to get it right. I didn’t have an additional $20,000 to try again. April turned to May. May turned to June. June turned to July. Throughout all of this, I was cold emailing filmmakers trying to get licensing agreements so we could have a solid library of content when we launched. These first brave filmmakers entrusted me with their content before the platform was even built.
By July I only had one developer left working on the project. The others just fell off, despite being under contract. I was extremely worried that the beta would never get out the door. I began to wonder if my tech start-up was over before I could get started. After working with the one developer, we got the beta in a place that was far from perfect, but functioned enough to introduce to the public. So the CMO and I decided to do an open beta. And on July 15, 2015 — two years to the day that I received my last check from my independent contractor — kweliTV beta launched — flaws and all.
When we launched kweliTV, we got a large amount of positive response. It was overwhelming actually. We thought that if we got about 100 or 200 interested people, it would be a success. We had no idea that thousands of people would join the platform in a matter if weeks. In the early days of the launch, the CMO and I spent wakeless nights answering inquiries on social media and through our customer service email address. It was tiring, yet exhilarating at the same time. We knew we were “on to something” and we didn’t want to lose the momentum. With paid subscribers, an active group of social media followers and a few partnerships in the works, I thought that the next step would be funding. I applied for a number of incubators and submitted my pitch deck to VC firms. I was hoping to get funding by the end of 2015. But it wasn’t that simple. I remember going to just about every VC website and reading the same scenario over again: “We only accept inquiries from potential candidates through personal connections.” Usually there would be another note asking visitors to check out their LinkedIn page to see if you have any common connections. Of course every time I would click the link, there would be at least 20 people between the VC and myself or there was no connection at all. That’s when I realized that getting an investment would me much harder than I realized. The few investors that I talked to felt that a tech company dedicated to “global black content” could not go public. After pitching the mission of kweliTV to one person, he asked me, “Don’t you have BET” as if black people should only have one option for programming. I realize not everyone will get kweliTV’s mission, but my challenge has been to get people who do not know my culture to understand why kweliTV is needed. By the end of Summer 2015 I became accustomed to hearing “no” — too many times to count.
Between August and December, kweliTV came across a number of tech roadblocks due to lack of funding. We’re making money everyday, but it’s not enough to be sustainable. All of the challenges have caused us to miss our initial official launch date of December 21, 2015. In August, we gained a CTO; then lost him. A developer neglected to update the database before deploying the code and our server crashed. We lost 2,000 registered users and about 250 paid subscribers — two weeks worth of content. While we couldn’t get back the registered users, I stayed up all night on our third-party commerce platform clicking on each individual account to obtain the email addresses of the affected customers. Breaking them up between monthly and annual subscribers, I sent customers an email giving them directions on how to re-select their subscriptions on the platform. In December, we lost a big chunk of revenue with a contracted developer. And by early 2016, we gained another developer who eventually became our CTO. While at the same time losing a developer due to a disagreement weeks before we were slated to launch February 28. While technology has been a challenge, I’m nowhere perfect. As CEO, I know that some of the setbacks kweliTV has had are due to some of my mistakes and misjudgments. All tech companies make mistakes in the early days Unfortunately if you don’t have funding, early mistakes could result in a failed business.
Two years after stepping out on faith and submitting an application to a business plan competition that ultimately resulted in a $20,000 seed grant, I’m concerned about the future of my tech start-up. kweliTV’s runway is almost gone. Everyday our customers are asking for new features that we can’t afford on our budget. Larger film distributors are approaching us about content. And I have no leads for investment funding.
On the bright side, kweliTV has grown to nearly 10,000 registered users and a substantial amount of paid subscribers. We have been able to secure partnerships with three major, well-established companies. We have more than 180 video projects on our platform and have been able to keep the commitment to our customers by releasing two new films a week. We have been able to financially support our 75+ (and growing) independent filmmakers, most of who are award-winning and of African descent. We have gotten a lot of buzz and media coverage about the work that we’re doing. And we will be launching our news division in the coming weeks. All of this has been done while bootstrapping and reinvesting every penny we’ve made back into the company.
I know what the statistics say. As a black woman, I have a slim to no chance of getting the adequate funding needed to grow and sustain my tech start up even though we have been able to prove our business model.
So when I say I’m a “mad” black woman without VC funding. It doesn’t mean I’m angry. Am I frustrated, overworked and depressed at times — of course! But I’m far from angry. By “mad”, I mean I’m crazy, cuckoo, loco! Despite all of the evidence that suggests that I will fail, I’m still insane enough to take on this adventure.
I don’t know where kweliTV will be in the next 12 months. But what I do know is that kweliTV has the dopest supporters who constantly validate why I’m passionate about quality black programming and why I work as hard as I do. I plan to keep pushing until our last dollar is spent — VC or not!
Call me crazy.
Cross-posted from LinkedIn