Jamarlin talks to Devin Johnson, the president of Uninterrupted. They discuss his career path and working with Lebron James, changes in the media industry, and whether Spotify targeted Black artists with policy changes. They also revisit whether there was “white flight” from MySpace to Facebook and whether this could happen to Instagram.
This is a full transcript of the conversation which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jamarlin Martin: You’re listening to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin. We have a go hard or go home approach as we talk to the leading tech leaders, politicians and influencers. Let’s GHOGH! Today we have Devin Johnson, the president of Uninterrupted. You may be familiar with the media platform because this is the company that was founded by LeBron James and Maverick Carter. They’re doing big things in LA and Devin’s the president. Welcome to the show. Tell us a little bit about your role at Uninterrupted, and what you do here.
Devin Johnson: I’m the president and chief operating officer of Uninterrupted. Uninterrupted is a digital media platform that is dedicated to providing a platform for athletes to tell stories. Our goal is to effectively be the platform of choice for athletes as they are starting to become more vocal, more active and effectively living more than an athlete life.
Jamarlin Martin: Your primary backers are LeBron James and Warner Brothers?
Devin Johnson: Our investor group is SpringHill Entertainment, which is LeBron and Maverick Carter. They’re the founders of that. And Warner Brothers, well it’s now Warner Media, there’s been a change in the landscape. So it was a Warner Brothers and Turner, which now fold under Warner Media. So I guess it’s really just that and Warner Media, and also the Fenway Sports Group, which is Tom Werner.
Jamarlin Martin: Would it be inaccurate to say you’re LeBron James’s digital media point?
Devin Johnson: No. I run a digital media business that’s founded by LeBron and Maverick. That’s a separate part of the world. This is a full self-standing business that is not dependent on one particular athlete. We are the platform for all athletes.
Jamarlin Martin: So talk about your story. You’re from Chicago and then you went to Duke for your MBA.
Devin Johnson: There is some stuff in between there. Yeah. So, I’m from Chicago, went to the University of Michigan, the best university in the world, go blue! And then came back home and worked for a company called Helene Curtis and I was doing a financial auditing at the time. Did that for a brief hot second. The company was bought by Unilever and I was asked to move to New Jersey and really opted out of moving to New Jersey at the time, and went over to work for the Quaker Oats company, which was then bought by Pepsi. So I’m just an acquisition magnet I guess. Worked there doing auditing and international projects, traveled all over the world, but always had a desire and a wish to work in media. And I was the guy that was, even though I was on the finance side, I was reading Ad Age. I was interviewing at advertising agencies, trying to get a job at an advertising agency. And none of that worked out until in the late nineties I went to work for Tribune Media company and that was right as they were launching their digital strategy.
Jamarlin Martin: Let’s talk about the media and advertising space. Three years ago did you see this carnage coming in terms of popular websites shutting down, other websites selling. One website, LittleThings, of course, they just completely shut down. One of the most popular sites marketing on Facebook. You have Mashable, they had a valuation of $250 million. They ended up selling for $50 million. So, as you know, we’re seeing a lot of pressure in the digital media business. Did you see the amount of carnage that you see three years ago?
Devin Johnson: I don’t know if I could have predicted what’s happened over time, but I mean we talked about it. Four or five years ago we were talking about just kind of just how unsustainable it is, the way that folks were driving traffic. And I think the key is always, for me, when I see anything happening inorganically, anytime that you have to spend half a year of money trying to drive traffic versus having people that are actually coming and engaging with your brand, that’s a challenge. And there were entire industries being built on buying traffic. And so…
Jamarlin Martin: Buzzfeed.
Devin Johnson: There’s tons of them. It’s happening literally everywhere. So it’s not crazy to believe that, fast forward three or four years later that some of the folks that were doing that are not around because at the end of the day, this business, this media business, in my opinion, is always about your ability to create great content that people are interested in and then your ability to monetize that content. And if you need to go out and effectively acquire temporary customers to view your content, it’s just not sustainable.
Jamarlin Martin: What would you say to the publisher who says, look at television, you launch a new show, you launch another season of the show? We have to put marketing budget behind it. We can just kinda sit back. We have to market that new series, that new show. But as part of any good audience acquisition retention strategy, you have to spend money, whether it’s on TV or online, that you’re being unfair to online publishers?
Devin Johnson: So in that scenario, if I’m marketing a TV show that’s coming out, it’s not sustainable to market to each individual viewer and get one view and then they don’t show up again.
Jamarlin Martin: But that happens sometimes. Superbowl.
Devin Johnson: How so?
Jamarlin Martin: There’s a lot of people who will watch the Superbowl. It’s a big event. Right? But that doesn’t mean they’re watching every game. So if you have a really good video, let’s say you’ve got a five minute video or whatever, and it’s really good. People are sharing it. People are engaging with it. They’re watching the full video. Why wouldn’t the digital media company promote and invest in that to pair the right audience at the right time with the right piece of content? Why wouldn’t they be investing in marketing that piece of content?
Devin Johnson: I think philosophically you just have to always, and I don’t know if I would look at on a per video basis, but philosophically you have to be able to show some bit of return are repeat customers. And so if we’re investing in marketing an uninterrupted show and you know, each week that the traffic for it goes down. Then it’s a waste of money.
Jamarlin Martin: So it sounds like you’re a pro-paid marketing, paid traffic in a sense, but you have to be optimizing for LTV, you have to be optimizing for real value, not just kind of a short term arbitrage or to pump your Comscore numbers up. Right?
Devin Johnson: Well, I don’t even live in the Comscore world, but yeah, exactly. I’m never about anything that feels artificial and so I don’t have a problem with paid marketing because paid marketing to your point, if I’m paying, if I’m trying to attach my content to the very specific viewer, that’s fine. But where you’re going to see if you’re doing it artificially, you’re not gonna have any engagement. That’s not going to be a good experience for your brand. And that’s when it all kind of falls down.
Jamarlin Martin: Do you spend money on Facebook now for to market your content?
Devin Johnson: Yes.
Jamarlin Martin: What makes your marketing organic and not artificial?
Devin Johnson: I’m not saying that all the marketing is inorganic. I’m just saying that if you’re building your business…
Jamarlin Martin: Meaning your end goal is repeat traffic. That’s what you’re optimizing for.
Devin Johnson: I’m always hopeful, anytime that I’m spending marketing dollars on any of our content, I’m always hopeful that they’re engaging, that I’ve attached the right content to the right eyeball, and these are people that will potentially recur as customers for us. That’s always the goal.
Jamarlin Martin: I want to share with you a great company called TopTal. That’s Top T A L. This is a company that I use if you’re in the market for a freelancer, whether it’s an engineer or designer, this is one of the leading companies are going to help you identify and hire top freelancing talent. You can go to https://moguldom.com/toptal/. Click on that link and register and someone will get right back to you to get more information. Be sure to check out TopTal. Yeah. It makes me think about a digital conference in Miami, and it’s a group of executives and CEOs, and the founder and CEO of LittleThings is there, and we’re sitting at the bar and we started talking about paid traffic and he starts bragging to me that Facebook is giving him inside information on how the algorithm works, how they can optimize their pages because they’re spending millions of dollars a month on pay traffic. I wrote about this and I thought about a Zynga. Zynga was crushing it on Facebook, the IPO, the valuation I believe was over a billion dollars. Then Facebook changed the rules against them and essentially the market cap was more than cut in half based on what changes Facebook wanted to do. And it brings up, when your whole business is marketing on a platform, it’s built on someone else’s platform. It could collapse. You can be a digital media Lehman Brothers. Also of course, as you know, Demand Media, and the Google Panda update, but when I shared with him Zynga and Google’s Panda update and its effect on Demand Media, he kinda laughed it off after that. But you were very bearish on the idea of paid traffic several years back.
Devin Johnson: Back in the day. Yeah. It’s just been a problem. I mean, you own a business. You know how difficult that was, and I don’t even know if people still do this anymore, but back in those days, so we’re talking, four to five years ago when maybe paid was at its height and people are still going to websites and all that stuff. It’s one thing to buy traffic, but it’s another thing to totally ignore actually building organic traffic and building customers. As a publisher, I’m always trying to build my customer database. So I started here maybe two years ago. And one of the first decisions I needed to make was what was I going to build a website because we’re in a world of distributed media, so people were living on IG, Facebook, Twitter, and that was the business, they didn’t need a website. Problem is what you just articulated, is that your entire business is built on platforms you don’t control and if you aren’t establishing one to one relationships with customers, what is your long-term effect? And I would just always be nervous about being a publisher that doesn’t own or have a relationship with any of my customers. That to me is a red flag.
Jamarlin Martin: While we’re on the subject of Facebook. A Microsoft researcher, around the time when Facebook started to lose steam, they studied the flight off of Myspace and what the Microsoft researchers say is that there was white flight, like a neighborhood where black folks moving in, we out, right? So the Microsoft researchers suggested that there was white flight out of Myspace because it started to get ghetto. In other people’s terms, right? Essentially this is the Microsoft researchers. It’s not my point of view. So people move off Myspace and they start migrating to Facebook, but Facebook is exclusive, right? First it’s only Ivy League schools. Then they start going into opening up top tier schools and they started going down the list and Facebook starts off as like an exclusive community and people want in. They want their school to get on the Facebook platform. Do you think there’s a possibility the Instagram is very popular with African Americans, specifically, Instagram, IG this, IG that. It’s super popular. Do you believe that there could be a similar situation where Instagram becomes dominated by people of color, people who, another segment of America believes are lower value or they kind of bring down their feeling of importance that you could have white flight increasingly off of Instagram and advertises could follow the white flight off of Instagram?
Devin Johnson: So this is the first time I’ve ever heard of the white flight being associated to social. So this is an interesting dialogue, but I don’t see that happening because I think, at its core, social is important to people, to all people. Social media has just become kind of that thing. And so I don’t see a scenario where people look up and, um, are looking around at the platform and seeing who’s on it and saying, ‘Oh, I’m gonna get off because I don’t like the other people’. People’s social graph is their social graph. I don’t think a lot of people know, if you’re white, I don’t think you know what black Twitter is, it don’t affect you. But you know, Trump has built an entire kind of infrastructure using Twitter as a way of creating a barker channel. So, to use your example, are black people leaving Twitter because it’s become kind of the Trump platform in a way? Not so much. I think it’s just your social graph is your social graph. You interact with who you interact with, you follow who you follow and that’s what it is.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. So to keep it a hundred percent accurate…
Devin Johnson: Are you about to retract something you said?
Jamarlin Martin: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. So in the MIT technology review in 2010. They cover this in the headline, Did whites flee the digital ghetto of Myspace? A new analysis by Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd argues that Facebook success is due in part to white flight from Myspace. And they go on to say, we’re talking about the social media practices of her classmates. When I asked her why most of her friends were moving from Myspace to Facebook – this is the researcher talking to Myspace users – Cat grew noticeably uncomfortable, she begins simply noting that Myspace is just old now and it’s boring, but then she paused, looked down at the table and continued, “It’s not really racist, but I guess you could say that. I’m not really into racism, but I think that Myspace now is more like ghetto or whatever.” This is just a quote that sets up the idea.
Devin Johnson: I don’t know if I would build a whole theory on that, but what I would say is it’s one of those correlation versus causation things. Facebook was after Myspace. So you can certainly say, well, Myspace’s decline was contributed to by Facebook’s increase. But the reality of it is, I’ll stand by what I said. I think your, your social graph, your social graph, and if these platforms are doing what they’re supposed to do in terms of connecting people and providing entertainment, providing content in a frictionless manner, I think there will always be folks on them. I don’t consider IG to be a prevalent to African Americans versus, it seems like it’s a platform that is used by all folks.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah, it is.
Devin Johnson: I don’t foresee any type of scenario where you look up and it’s all black and the white folks are on the new thing.
Jamarlin Martin: Got It.
Devin Johnson: You know what’s really going to drive it, culture drives it. Wherever the coolest spot is, that’s where people are.
Jamarlin Martin: But if people left Myspace, the cool people were on Myspace.
Devin Johnson: Were they?
Jamarlin Martin: Yes in terms of the music artists, rappers, the cool people were on Myspace, and the researcher, at least this is what they’re suggesting out of Microsoft, is that Mark Zuckerberg said, hey, you have to go to an Ivy League school to be on Facebook. Brilliant. In terms of the consumer mentality and the class system in America, to even get on my platform you’ve got to go to an Ivy League school. Okay. I’m going to open it up.
Devin Johnson: This is not how it happened. You can see the movie and see it didn’t happen that way.
Jamarlin Martin: Facebook was an exclusive social network, 100 percent, and it was only open to Ivy League schools.
Devin Johnson: Because that’s how it started, it was built on that and then they expanded outward.
Jamarlin Martin: But that exclusivity I believe was instrumental in terms of people wanting to be part of it. Meaning that, you had to be a part of Ivy League top tier schools.
Devin Johnson: I don’t know if it’s the Ivy exclusivity, I think it’s exclusivity in general.
Jamarlin Martin: But the cool people weren’t on Facebook. The cool people were on Myspace, but this class kind of elitism, people wanted that, and of course started to migrate over. I believe that’s one factor in them migrating over to Facebook, in terms of they want access to the exclusivity. So it was not as if the cool people are at Facebook and I want to go over to where the cool people are.
Devin Johnson: If you just look at the sheer numbers of it all, I don’t think that you can draw a link between people leaving Myspace. Facebook has a billion users. What was Myspace at its prime? Millions at best. Social media just grew. I mean the whole idea of it. Whoever was on Myspace, I guarantee you, whoever the percentage of folks on Myspace, a hundred percent of those, 90 percent of those people were on Facebook and then the whole idea of social grew. So just the, the adoption of that as a platform grew. So Facebook was just at the right time. Well, you could almost say they drove and made it the right time.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. So three, four years ago, you were very bearish on the media landscape…
Devin Johnson: Was I bearish on the media landscape or was I bearish on companies that were inorganically trying to drive traffic?
Jamarlin Martin: I think you were bearish on the media landscape in general. I think you were correct in terms of some of the trends on CPMs and other stuff that was going on.
Devin Johnson: I’m a finance guy. I’m always looking at CPMs.
Jamarlin Martin: You were very bullish on branded content.
Devin Johnson: You’re actually reminding me. I really was. I was ahead of my time. Thank you. You should’ve paid me more as your consultant.
Jamarlin Martin: That’s true. So 2018 folks want to get in the digital media business, they want to build the next big digital media company. What are some things you believe younger entrepreneurs and executives miss about how challenging it is in these digital media streets?
Devin Johnson: Man, it is hard. I mean this business, I think it chews up a lot of folks and I think the biggest thing is what do you have that’s special and unique. What’s your special sauce? And that can be a perspective that could be a brand. I mean that’s one thing I’ve learned from Mav, because Mav is very meticulous about the brand of Uninterrupted. I was probably of the mindset, before working for him, I probably would have just said, hey, you know, if I can, if we can just create great content, if we could just do amazing content, that’s just enough, the content will find eyeballs and there’s a lot that happens beyond that. The Uninterrupted brand and what it represents, the more than an athlete mantra, all of that matters to how we are positioned, how brands think about us, how athletes think about us, how consumers think about us. They’re all very tied in together.
Jamarlin Martin: Well, let’s come down a little bit.
Devin Johnson: I’m too high?
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. You’re way too high. So a lot of us, practically speaking, a lot of folks out there in terms of the audience, they don’t have access to the athlete network, they don’t have LeBron. You got a lot of a secret sauce built in, right? But for entrepreneurs, media professionals who are in the game or want to get in the game, what do they need to know about how challenging this space is that may not be obvious?
Devin Johnson: Well I think one thing that I think people underestimate is how difficult it is to sell advertising, but also to establish partnerships with brands. I think selling advertising is difficult. Establishing partnerships with brands is very difficult.
Jamarlin Martin: That would also be at the top of my list. Meaning that, I’ve met folks that think they’re going to build an audience, get the right content and then you’re just going to be selling to all these brands with $5,000,000 uniques. So I’m going to hire a sales team and I’m going to close these deals. But what I found in my career in terms of closing the sales deal, when you factor in how much scale is needed to compete today, in terms of a big audience, you’re also competing against Facebook and Google in some cases. Just the simple process of closing a sale, in terms of the wining and dining process. In terms of your leveraging people in your network that some buying decisions are not just based on an objective point of view on the audience and the property point of view. But you want to talk a little bit more about kind of some non-obvious challenges that you see?
Devin Johnson: Creating great content. Content that’s going to cut through the clutter I think is still also challenging. There’s just a lot of people out there and the content creation landscape is changing in the sense that, there are people doing full movies on an iPhone. And so these are things that I don’t think any of us were contemplating four or five years ago. So the idea of creating something and what it’s going to take to do that and cutting through the clutter and getting it to the eyeballs that matter, I think is really challenging. And I think people really underestimate that.
Jamarlin Martin: Before a new digital media property starts to think about subscriptions…
Devin Johnson: Subscriptions? Now you’re really getting on the hard stuff.
Jamarlin Martin: From my point of view, everyone was chasing Buzzfeed. Look at Buzzfeed, they’re spending millions of dollars and people are sharing on Facebook. But Buzzfeed has never made any money. They’ve never printed any cash flow. Right? But the market was chasing Buzzfeed. Then the market was bearish negative on the New York Times. But how things played out, I believe New York Times, credit to them, they knew how things were going to play out, right? You can’t sell advertising better than the New York Times, but it was a tell by the New York Times in terms of how hard they were going on subscriptions that there’s not enough advertising for y’all, meaning that New York Times is going to be able to get in those big advertising meetings and close those deals. But they saw that the only sustainable business was a subscription business and now New York Times is doing, I believe, a billion dollars of subscription revenue. So the market is chasing Buzzfeed, no profits, VC-funded. VCs can always lose a lot of money and they got time for the right setup, and then New York Times, profitable and a billion dollars of subscription revenue. What did the market miss about that?
Devin Johnson: Well, I think a lot of it is positioning. I think New York Times stayed very disciplined in their approach and they knew where their skillset lies and what they do well. They knew where their core competency is. We said earlier, you can create great content and they can monetize it, now the world started changing around it and so maybe the value that you can have that conversation. But Buzzfeed, I don’t really have good insights on what they were particularly good at aside from…
Jamarlin Martin: They cracked the code in terms of virality. They were a pioneer in how to make stuff go viral and amplify content on Facebook specifically.
Devin Johnson: So to me that’s your distribution. So that’s like a beverage company figuring out distribution without having a really good product. So what is Coke if they can’t get it to the customers? Or actually, said differently, if Coke had a distribution strategy but didn’t have Coke and they were just selling whatever, it wouldn’t work. And so that probably is what kind of happened to Buzzfeed, but New York Times, to their credit, has always stayed focused and they have something that people are willing to pay for, which is difficult. That’s the lens I try to look at our content through. I always try to look at it through the lens of would someone pay for that? Not because I’m going down a subscription business model, but because I think that is a great filter to determine whether you’re doing really good stuff.
Jamarlin Martin: Do you have a certain milestone? Well, first, do you plan on rolling out subscriptions?
Devin Johnson: I don’t think we have any plans for it. I’m not gonna say yes or no. It’s just that my strategic plan that’s probably sitting in there, there’s nothing in that for the short term.
Jamarlin Martin: Is there an audience or engagement? Is there a metric or a couple of metrics you would like to see? Let’s say you invest in startups as well. You’ve been investing in tech startup companies for a while. But if a company said, hey, I’m going to roll out subscriptions, what type of milestones do you think you need before you even think about asking your audience to pay? Can you quantify that?
Devin Johnson: It all starts with one thing. Great content. There’s the Athletic. The Athletic is out there. So they are effectively trying to create the paid version of the sports world. And so they’ve picked off lots of top journalists, and are putting them behind their pay wall. I don’t know how it’s performing. Heard it is doing pretty well. But they’re making a bet on, if we can find the best possible journalists and put them behind a paywall, then people will be willing to pay for that. I think that’s a challenge. I think getting people to pay for editorial content is going to be a challenge if you’re not the New York Times and The Economist, the Washington Post and those kind of folks, I think it gets really strong dropoff. It’s worth the bet. If you’re The Athletic, it’s worth it because it’s sports and sports is a thing that people love and they’re passionate about it. So why wouldn’t people pay for it? But it’s going to be hard because there’s so much. The reason why it’s hard is there’s a lot of sports content out there.
Jamarlin Martin: I agree with you to an extent, but what I see is that as the advertising money goes away, the content companies can’t subsidize quality content anymore. And so the shift there, there’s a big delta between ad-supported content, meaning that if a site is just ad-supported, I believe content quality is going down. There’s lower quality, but to get better content, most of those properties are going to go the way of Washington Post. Bloomberg of course released their subscription product, but you’re going to start to see kind of mid-level and then smaller organizations make subscriptions work. And the ad-supported stuff, it’s going to be hard for them to produce quality content. And so I think you’re going to see a big shift in consumer behavior over the next five to 10 years, in terms of paying for online subscriptions.
Devin Johnson: There’s always going to be a share of wallet conversation, which is what am I willing to pay for? I’m willing to pay for my Netflix. I’m willing to pay for Hulu. I’m willing to pay for whatever. And where does that fit into that share of wallet? I think it’s editorial. I think it’s squeezed more and more because one big issue that editorial has is that, they’ll break a story, so you’ll have your highly connected journalists that you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for. They’ll break a story and then some dude has a blog next door that’s going to say per New York Times, if you’re lucky they say per New York Times, or per that newspaper, so-and-so got traded. Now you’ve paid all that money for the journalist and then you got the guy next door doing it on his couch and just basically referencing and piggybacking on all your journalism. That’s the challenge on the editorial side. That’s one of the reasons I try to stay out of that world.
Jamarlin Martin: What attracted you to the media business where you said, hey, I have to be in this industry? Was there anything in particular?
Devin Johnson: It’s an interesting question. I don’t know the answer to it. I really liked the storytelling elements of it. I really liked bridging the advertising business and helping products market themselves and being a platform for that. When I was in college I worked for a publication called The Black Student Monthly. I founded The Black Student Monthly with a journalist. So I’ve always kind of been around it and just enjoyed it. But I don’t know that one particular thing that just says this is why I do it.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Got It. So you go to Duke. There’s two other executives that come to mind who graduated with a Duke MBA. Aki at SheKnows, and also Detavio at Interactive One. But there’s not a lot of us at the top in the industry. Do you believe there could be something there in terms of Duke.
Devin Johnson: I don’t think so. Fuqua is a great school. They have a great entrepreneurial courses. I don’t think there is a correlation between executives in media and the Fuqua School of Business, but I think Fuqua prepares us for whatever careers we want to be in. I was in that field.
Jamarlin Martin: Do you know of three brothers that are at your level in terms of the three of you in the industry from another B school?
Devin Johnson: I’m sure Harvard can stake claim to that if they wanted to. I can’t think of them. I know in digital media, I probably could go there. There’s Alvin Bowles, he’s a Harvard guy. Probably Stanford is another one. There’s Michael Smith, who I believe is a Stanford alum. We’re all spread all over. If I thought long enough and we wanted to pull out my Linkedin page, I can do some research and get you some names.
Jamarlin Martin: And how much credit would you assign to your professional success to going to an elite business school versus let’s say going to a middle of the road business school, meaning can you kind of separate the alpha where I think really Duke mattered in terms of my resume and my pedigree.
Devin Johnson: I think when you’ve been in a career as long as I have now, I’m approaching 20-something years, where do you go to school becomes less important now. I’m not going to say it hasn’t opened a door or established a relationship or maybe someone looked at it and said, Oh, here’s a guy that maybe knows a little thing or two. But I think it really becomes about performance and what you’ve done. And I think from my career, I spent a lot of time just in the trenches, proving myself, understanding all the aspects of operations and being in a position to run a business. I mean, that’s what it’s about. I don’t know, that will be something that we could probably talk about over a beer or two, but I don’t think it’s the end all be all. But I think it does matter in terms of opening doors.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Got It. And for the audience out there who are thinking about business school, what would you say about the value of business school today versus when you made the decision to invest that money in getting the MBA?
Devin Johnson: Well, I was uniquely positioned that my company actually paid for my graduate degree. So the decision matrix wasn’t the same for me because I did an executive Mba and I had an opportunity for my company to pay for it. So I wasn’t thinking about it in the context of, I gotta write this check. At the time it was a $75,000 check, which now I believe is something like a $150,000 check.
Jamarlin Martin: In terms of tthe change in the landscape in terms of investing in an MBA?
Devin Johnson: I don’t think it’s just an MBA. I think if there’s a question on education and where you should place your bets and I think if you have a very, I don’t know if the word is vocational, but if you have a specific skillset like coding or you’re an engineer, I would think long and hard before investing a ton of money into an undergraduate degree. I think there are opportunities to prove yourself outside of education. I think there are ways to learn and capture skillsets outside of a formal education. And so I think there’s going to be a trend. I believe there will be a trend where people are going to rely less on our university system.
Jamarlin Martin: Do you believe that there’s a, a structural arbitrage between…
Devin Johnson: That’s a very complicated word already, structural arbitrage. That’s what we’re doing here? Come on.
Jamarlin Martin: Let me explain what I mean. So white graduates will invest $100,000 in a quality education and let’s say a black student or family, they invest $100,000. So you end up possibly paying in this example, the same price, both pay 100k for their degrees, but because of the systematic discrimination, it’s materially more difficult to climb the ladder in corporate America or in business if you’re black versus if you’re white. But you’re paying the same amount for the degree. However, one side is set up better. Would you say that there’s a material amount of structural arbitrage in terms of your degree, return on investment (ROI) and opportunity?
Devin Johnson: So if I’m understanding correctly, you’re saying there’s a potential higher ROI because African Americans have a tougher time in corporate America, that becomes an opportunity to build ROI into it. Is that what you’re saying?
Jamarlin Martin: Structurally, one side, the white graduate site on average, part of the problem with the inequality numbers in the society is that you have all these black students paying for degrees, but most likely you’re gonna get a lot less out of your degree because of…
Devin Johnson: Oh, you’re saying the ROI is less?
Jamarlin Martin: Correct. Materially less. Meaningfully less.
Devin Johnson: I mean there’s a lot of factors that go into that because if you think about it, inequality exist, full stop. That’s a conversation. But if you think about from a career perspective, we all hit walls at different times. I mean there are folks that, the Kenneth Chenaults of the world, got to the top. There are also folks that have struggled careerwise in a corporate environment in year two and year three. I have a philosophy. I think there should be bigger attention paid to the middle career folks in terms of, if corporations are trying to retain quality African American talent or quality talent, diverse talent, they need to do it in mid-career because that’s when people are generally hitting the wall and then finding other things to do and that’s why you’re seeing a sharp drop off I think from going from probably manager to director or director to VP, and that’s when you’re finding African-Americans fewer to find, but from an education standpoint, I think you’ve got to do it because if you are African American trying to find, what we talked about earlier, getting those doors opening, not having a degree is a tough putt, walking into any of those corporate doors. Now if you want to make a case of being an entrepreneur, that’s a different conversation because now you’re betting on yourself, so is it better to place a $100,000 into a college education or into a potential career or an entrepreneurial opportunity? Depends on the opportunity, but I think it’s worth a conversation and worth thinking about.
Jamarlin Martin: How did you get connected to folks like Maverick and LeBron in terms of, how does that first call take place, where you’re in the mix for a new venture? How did this opportunity pop up on your radar?
Devin Johnson: Yeah. I was fortunate that Time Warner has a executive recruiting function and over the years they’ve always stayed in touch with me, whether I was at NBC Universal, whether I was at Tribune, I’ve just always been in their database and it just happened that Maverick, who’s the CEO of this business, through our investor group, used Time Warner executive recruiting to fill the role. They’re looking for, I think it was called the general manager at the time. So that was kind of the initial call, it happened through Time Warner executive recruitment.
Jamarlin Martin: How many candidates do you think they looked at, if you had to guess?
Devin Johnson: I don’t know. Lavar was the recruiter. I’ve never asked him that question, but I’m going to guess just knowing Mav and who he is, that it was a pretty wide search. I’m very fortunate to be left standing at the end, but it was a nationwide search.
Jamarlin Martin: When I look at how LeBron is moving his chess pieces from a business perspective, I see, intention where he wants to find smart black folks and let them quarterback around me, where there is a certain consciousness. Would that be fair in terms of, you see that intention in terms of what he’s building and being very intentional in terms of, hey, I got to give my people possibly a deeper look.
Devin Johnson: I think what you’re seeing is a scenario where it’s a level playing field for people of color. I’ve never had this conversation but I don’t think that he wakes up and says, I want to hire black folks. I don’t know if that’s the case. I think he has very talented people around him. Everyone in his organization is talented, they’re not all African American. And I think we’ve just been very fortunate that from Lebron and Mav, there is a good ability to identify talent and I think as you come in and as you sit down with them, it’s not necessarily what color are you, but what you can contribute. And so I think what I found in my experience has been I just feel like I’m in a very level playing field and if there was someone more qualified that was white to have this job, I think there’s a good chance that person would have this job.
Jamarlin Martin: If you really love the GHOGH podcast, one way to support us is going to http://www.moguldom.com/survey. Fill out that quick survey that gives us better information on our audience and helps us with our sponsors. That’s one big way you can support us and keep our movement going. Go to http://www.moguldom.com/survey. Thank you. I’ve been friends with Devin for maybe what about five years?
Devin Johnson: Yeah, that sounds right.
Jamarlin Martin: So on Linkedin, his credentials, his experience stood out and I reached out to Devin. I never got hit back. All the folks out there don’t feel bad when people don’t hit you back. But maybe about a year later, I was like, man, this guy is experienced, the credentials are rock solid. I got to meet this brother’s. So Devin hits me back on Linkedin. We develop a friendship. He provides some really good consulting. And he is one of the only brothers that I’ve taken fishing, and he has not thrown up.
Devin Johnson: Oh really?
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. About five other brothers who’ve gone fishing with me have thrown up on the boat.
Devin Johnson: I didn’t even really get nauseous. Is that a thing? Is it seasick?
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. Seasick. But I don’t know what’s going on with everybody throwing up.
Devin Johnson: I don’t get motion sickness, so maybe that’s it, but my children do, so I’m very familiar with it.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. So you have a very strong reputation in the digital media and advertising industry as an operator, as a leader. In terms of you building that competency, that skill in your industry, did you have mentors or was there a particular experience, a particular stint at a place that really groomed you for the corporate leader that you are today?
Devin Johnson: Well, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had some really great bosses and some of them have turned into mentors. I think the first thing is that being a finance person, as I said earlier, the early part of my career was all in kind of auditing, financial accounting, that kind of stuff, and understanding that is pivotal to really being a good operator because I understand how margins are developed. I understand how fixed costs work. I just understand the makeup of a PnL, which allows me to become a better operator.
Jamarlin Martin: And check the creative side of the business?
Devin Johnson: Yeah. What I like to do and what I like to believe is that I enable creatives to be creative, and let me handle all of the operations and letting me handle kind of the messiness of making this thing into a business. I’d like to believe that I let creators create. Now I think as I’ve moved west, I think I’ve maybe become maybe half creative and I have an idea too that I can kind of push through and work through. So maybe I’m coming over to the dark side and becoming creative. I don’t know, but I’ll never not be an operator. I’ll never not think about life from the view of a PnL. But to your question about mentors, there was certainly a few folks. One of my mentors, a guy named Barry Mayo, who was an early pioneer in urban radio. He’s someone that I stay in touch with today, probably owe him a call right now. And he’s a guy that, when I look at what he was able to build and he was on the programming side and he evolved formats, he’s an innovator. He’s someone that I’ve stayed in touch with. And then also there was a guy named Ezra Kucharz , and Ezra was one of the first people that I think saw me beyond my financial roots. He saw me as someone that can be an operator, saw me as someone that could do something beyond just managing the books. And he pulled me out of a finance role and hired me to run an incubator at NBC Universal. And so the incubator was charged with trying to find new ways to make money and exploit the assets of that NBCU had, and new platforms. I’m now dating myself, but can you make money in mobile? Can you make money in gaming? And so he was a guy that kind of said, I think this guy can do that. And so that switch getting out of finance was probably the most pivotal moment in my career that allowed me to be sitting in this seat.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay, let’s talk about Uninterrupted. You guys are producing different types of content in partnership with SpringHill. Films, television, podcasts, branded content. It’s interesting that when you guys launched you said, we’re not going to do editorial content. We’re not going to do like kind of standard written journalist content. Talk about that process of deciding that you’re going to pass this up and focus on other stuff.
Devin Johnson: Yeah. One clarifying point is that SpringHill and Uninterrupted are two separate companies and they really have two different missions. SpringHill is a traditional production company that is their business. And what we do here is we’re a digital media business. Now in this world what does that mean? In digital media now there’s streaming services. Now our content will likely be on linear or has been in the linear space. So, it’s just a different way of looking things. In terms of editorial content, we’ve been videos since day one. The first piece of content we created was video.
Jamarlin Martin: Are you just saying like, Hey, there’s too much editorial content out there. There’s ESPN, there’s all this other stuff.
Devin Johnson: I never saw a reason to be in that space. People are still consuming editorial content. That’s not the challenge, but to your point it is a little crowded, and it’s just not what this business was set up to do. We’re the athletes platform, I don’t really envision a scenario where I’m asking athletes to sit in front of a laptop, banging out articles.
Jamarlin Martin: Was it a kind of relatively quick decision for you in terms of we’re going to go bearish on editorial and bypass it, or was there a lot of debate?
Devin Johnson: Well, the business model of being video was here when I showed up, so I showed up three months into the business and that was always the intent. It was to do video, so there was never a decision of not to do editorial, when you say editorial, written content, however, we do create video content that is not monetized or is in our mind a little bit editorial in a sense of it’s storytelling in a way that’s not directly tied to a brand or something like that. We do that.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Got It. You were involved with podcasts relatively early on. What went into picking podcasts as a medium three years ago before a lot of other people are now getting into podcasts?
Devin Johnson: Yeah, it was about two years ago. I think that I was seeing the trend from where I sat, I could see the trend that podcasts were becoming a meaningful vehicle for people to tell stories. It’s mobile. It’s very portable. It doesn’t cost a lot. The investment is very low. The interest was really high. So, we just saw an opportunity to just kind of give that a shot. Our business, we take risks. We’re in the position where we can look at all the platforms and do where I want to be on the platforms that are trending upward. And so to your other question of why not editorial, editorial is not trending upward in my opinion. So podcast was just a great opportunity to create a vehicle for our athletes to tell their stories.
Jamarlin Martin: And how do you go about monetizing your podcast with advertisers?
Devin Johnson: Yeah, we have maybe three different ways. Let me see. I’ve never broken them down. We have branded podcasts that we’ve done. We’re working on a project right now with Nike. They’ve launched their new Just Do It headquarters and we’re doing a branded podcast with them. We also have standard advertising that you’ll hear the host read ads.
Jamarlin Martin: Is that just using a partner and is that kind of performance marketing?
Devin Johnson: Yeah. And then also, I think lastly, we do events. There’s been a couple of live events where sponsors have come in and sponsored an event. So there’s three ways to monetize.
Jamarlin Martin: If you like what you’re hearing, you can check us out at www.moguldom.com. That’s M O G U L D O M dot com. That’s www.moguldom.com. We have the latest information on tech, crypto, the business of Hollywood and economic empowerment. You can also check me out on Twitter @Jamarlinmartin. Let’s get back to the podcast. So I recently read, CAA, the talent management company out of Hollywood, they recruited an agent just to focus on podcasts, live events, and you’re starting to see some money go to building out live events around podcasts. Are you guys going to be doing that?
Devin Johnson: We’ve done it already. Last all-star weekend, two all-star weekends. We did it with a couple of our podcasts, we had Gabrielle Union as one of our guests and Yvonne Orji, and the Ball Girl Magic crew, which is Yvonne Orji. Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. So we’ve had live events already. I just think we’re likely going to do more. In a perfect world you’re doing like a tour, but we’ve got to crawl before we walk.
Jamarlin Martin: Of course, Time Inc sold Essence. Did you guys take a look at that in terms of the media empire that you guys are building here? When Essence was in play, did you guys take a look at that deal?
Devin Johnson: No, we’re sports. We’re an athlete’s platform, digital media sports business. It wouldn’t make sense for us. And we don’t do print. We talked about that.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. Of course, you guys are able to leverage LeBron, a network of different athletes. But what are the key differentiators of what you guys are doing in kind of the glut of other sports media organizations?
Devin Johnson: Well, I think for us it’s our relationship with athletes. We’re not journalism, so that’s a really big differentiator between a ESPN or a Fox Sports or some of the other more established players. We’re about storytelling and so the real opportunity for us is establishing relationships with athletes and being able to tell their stories in different platforms. So whether that’s a podcast, whether that’s a video, whether that’s a long form documentary, I mean we’ve done tons of different types of content, and really for us, that’s what’s differentiating us and when athletes are coming to us saying, I want to tell your story with Uninterrupted, that to me is an indicator that we’re kind of in a different pot or a different space. What would you say is different? I’m curious to know what you think?
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. So from my perspective, you guys are different in terms of the media channels that you’re investing in, in terms of being focused on branded. You guys did a big deal with Chase. I saw that in quite a few places, but it seems like you guys are very focused on specific pieces of the digital media space and I think that’s very different from a lot of the, hey, we do everything type of players. Two, I think you guys have an obvious cultural spin on content, and so that’s a big one.
Devin Johnson: Yeah. I didn’t say it, but that’s also a big differentiator as we start especially talking to brands. I think what we’re seeing now is brands want to be attached to culture and I think there are some folks, and this is to borrow a term from my boss Mav, that some folks are out there actually living culture and represent culture. And I think some entities out there are borrowing culture. They see it and they try to manipulate it to fit their platform and I think we try to be very authentic and who we are. And I think culture becomes a big part of that.
Jamarlin Martin: On the authenticity front. It seems like branded content when you work with the Chase, when you work with a Wells Fargo, when you work with a Equifax, when you work with these bigger companies though, how authentic can you really be in terms of talking about a lot of the issues that really connect with our people in terms of racism, white supremacy. Do you feel trapped at times in a way where like, hey, I got to keep this content PG enough for a Chase?
Devin Johnson: There is always a struggle when you’re working with brands. There’s always kind of that tension. I will say that struggle. The tension between kind of brands and publishers, when you’re doing branded content. I think we have a really amazing partnership with Chase in the sense that they have the trust to allow us to be authentic and they follow our lead in terms of allowing us to create content that we think is going to cut through the clutter and I think, and you’d have to speak with them because I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but I think they would feel like they’ve been rewarded by that trust, that they’ve been attached to really good strong content, and so not all relationships are going to be that strong. I mean there’s been there’s relationships from our management team and their management team, their senior level executives, which has kind of laid the groundwork for us to have this type of relationship. But that’s really the key kind of in the branded space. You gotta let your partner cook and if you know, if they’re coming to us wanting to be attached to culture and they want this, they have to let us do our thing. Now, we have to be considerate of where they sit and they are a hundred and something year old bank and there’s a certain conservativism that goes along with that, so we just can’t while out. But I think that’s what, that’s what makes a good partnership, that we understand where they are and they understand who we are and we try to find that common ground and I think this is a rare situation where it’s just gone very well. Extremely well. Probably from the start.
Jamarlin Martin: Do some of your partners put out disclaimers with you that hey, we don’t want to be around political stuff. They’re just upfront and say, hey, let’s try to stay away from political stuff.
Devin Johnson: I’m sure it’s happened, but I haven’t really been exposed to it, but I’m sure it’s happened.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay, got it. So you’re the president here, how many employees roll up under you? How many employees are in the organization?
Devin Johnson: We’re about a 30, 30 plus.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay. Got it. I thought I had read your title was COO. Were you promoted to president or you came in as president?
Devin Johnson: I came in as general manager. Was hired as general manager and then became the president and COO.
Jamarlin Martin: How long did that take, that step up?
Devin Johnson: I’m not sure. Maybe six to nine months. I’d have to check.
Jamarlin Martin: A couple months ago, Spotify said, after receiving a lot of criticism, they said, we’re going to demote R. Kelly in our recommendation algorithm. We’re not going to pull him off of Spotify, but…
Devin Johnson: I thought they pulled him. They just demoted him?
Jamarlin Martin: They just demoted him in the algorithm where they said we’re not going to recommend R. Kelly because of these complaints.
Devin Johnson: So they left him on the platform but he won’t show up?
Jamarlin Martin: On the recommendation engine that drives a lot of streams. So when this happened, it’s not just R. Kelly, they decided as part of this new policy to remove other artists that seem to be mostly black artists. On one hand it’s like, okay, R. Kelly, there’s some big issues in terms of him abusing women. There’s moral and ethical issues for sure with R. Kelly. However, do you have a point of view that black people should be reporting and making judgements on specific black artists and going to the big tech companies and tell the big tech companies to police this content, remove this content because of what these artists have done in the past or continue to do? Do you have a point of view on supporting that type of protest with companies like Spotify?
Devin Johnson: I don’t really think I’m qualified to kind of speak to that. When that information came out I was like, oh, that’s really interesting because from a commerce side, I’ve never really seen a company kind of take that position. Generally art is art, and it’s like, now that Bill Cosby has been convicted, are people going to stop watching his shit?
Jamarlin Martin: They’ve taken his show off the air.
Devin Johnson: Is it off everywhere?
Jamarlin Martin: It’s off.
Devin Johnson: You think it is going to be off forever?
Jamarlin Martin: Possibly. Media organizers are sacrificing a lot of revenue where they just pulled the Cosby Show.
Devin Johnson: We’re just in a different era, man. If you think about it. Think about what happened with Rosanne. When you do bad stuff, there’s become kind of this commercial kind of clash where it can happen. But where do you draw the line? What is the issue that could happen that could knock you off of your pedestal?
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah. So on a micro level, the folks complaining about R. Kelly and support, I think morally, ethically they’re right on point, this guy’s a bad guy, he’s an evil guy. But within the macro context, where Spotify, Google, Facebook, on their own diversity reports, right? They may have one percent of black people, they may have two percent of black people. Right? And so if black people are not represented at these big tech companies at one percent, two percent, you’re not going to be on the content policy teams who make decisions on how to police the platform in the content. So my problem with the group that went to Spotify is that we see the biasness in police departments, right? A lot of black people don’t trust the police, but Spotify policy team is the police, Google, Facebook policy. This is me talking. I’m saying that Google and Facebook, if they are going to police the internet in terms of what information that you see, what type of anti-racist, anti-white supremacy information you see in a certain respect, Google and Facebook, they are controlling what you see, what’s being marketed to you, so they have a police function and so if you’re telling them, hey, we need more police out there, we need more police, and you see that they’re rounding up majority black artists. They’re not touching, you know, Bon Jovi. They’re not touching Metallica, Guns n Roses and some other folks.
Devin Johnson: Oh, wait a minute. R. Kelly, has he been convicted of anything?
Jamarlin Martin: I don’t believe R. Kelly has ever been in jail for a sexual crime. I’m not sure.
Devin Johnson: Yeah, but it seems to be widely known information, but I think for you to draw that conclusion, that link to Bon Jovi, does Bon Jovi have a similar case out there?
Jamarlin Martin: Like Axl Rose, there’s a list, and Spotify, I knew this was going to happen, Spotify came back and said we were wrong, this stuff wasn’t baked. We didn’t think about this stuff through, so I was very vocal about it on Twitter. But then after that Spotify, of course, said this doesn’t make any sense.
Devin Johnson: Oh, so they reversed that?
Jamarlin Martin: They reversed it.
Devin Johnson: So is he still not in the algorithm?
Jamarlin Martin: I believe he’s back in the algorithm. That’s my understanding. So they kicked one rapper off the system and they put it back as part of this policy.
Devin Johnson: Who was the rapper?
Jamarlin Martin: Triple X?
Devin Johnson: Oh wow. Yeah. I don’t really have a sense for where that line gets drawn. If I’m Spotify, how are you making the decision? I think the point you’re making is why one set of folks versus another, and I think that is a valid question, but I think that goes to trying to figure out what makes sense in terms of if you’re going to establish a policy, it’s got to be a specific policy that you can lay out equally. You can’t exactly choose two folks and then draw your…
Jamarlin Martin: Like Michael Jackson. Right? How many accusations…
Devin Johnson: You know you not gonna get me on your podcast saying anything bad about Michael Jackson.
Jamarlin Martin: I’m not asking you to, but, at least in my view, if it’s going to be so ambiguous, I do not trust a Google, Facebook, Spotify to police the content, the artists in an even way.
Devin Johnson: I think there’s always gonna be a challenge when you have commercial institutions that are trying to make decisions on morality because I think there’s just a lot of…
Jamarlin Martin: So just stay out of it?
Devin Johnson: I ain’t saying stay out of it, I’m just saying it’s going to be a challenge. In the case of Roseanne, do you think that was the right decision to pull her off?
Jamarlin Martin: I’m conflicted on that. I don’t have a definite point of view. I can say for sure I’m not in the camp, that hey, she calls someone a monkey and she loses her show in. The reason I would say that is that was what’s most likely going to happen is because we don’t have the same amount of power that that policing of commentary of talking about other groups, other people, it would have a disproportionate effect on the people who have less power.
Devin Johnson: The interesting thing about that was there was an African American woman in power that made that decision, which, it’s just a rare scenario.
Jamarlin Martin: Yeah, but that wouldn’t impact my point of view where, hey, if you guys want to get a lot more freedom of speech policing, I just think that if you guys go down that route in the short term it looks good, right? So certain racists are falling down. But what I have seen online in an observation that most likely that’s going to have a disproportionate effect on the people with the least power, and particularly groups who are fighting the system. Okay. I want to thank Devin Johnson for coming on the show. Devin, if people want to follow you on Twitter and find out more information about Uninterrupted, you want to tell them where to go.
Devin Johnson: Well, that’s easy. I’m @Devin. You have the Devin handle. https://twitter.com/Devin.
Jamarlin Martin: Okay, so you can check out Devin online, and go to https://www.uninterrupted.com/. you can check out what Devin and Maverick Carter are building, it’s blowing up. You guys definitely want to check it out. Thanks for coming on GHOGH.
Devin Johnson: Thanks for having me.
Jamarlin Martin: Let’s GHOGH! Thanks everybody for listening to GHOGH. You can check me out @jamarlinmartin on Twitter and also come check us out at www.moguldom.com. Be sure to subscribe to our daily newsletter. You can get the latest information on crypto, tech, economic empowerment and politics. Let’s GHOGH!
This podcast has been edited for clarity.